By Joel Hess
Next week many of us will begin the Lenten season feeling the pastor smudging ashes upon our foreheads and announcing over us, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ The association between ashes/dirt and repentance goes way back for God’s people. Even the pagan King of Nineveh put on sackcloth and sat in ashes when he heard that God was angry.
I enjoy our current practice though it has become far too civilized – (like many Lutheran churches’ miniature baptism bowls! Just because you can sprinkle doesn’t mean you should!) The ashes are nothing to brag about. They are not something to parade around town unless you are willing to explain their meaning to everyone who sees you. Perhaps draw them pictures about exactly what you have done to be considered such a dirtbag. Otherwise displaying our dirty minds doesn’t serve others but ourselves, making us even a little self-righteous and pharisaical. Maybe I don’t like the practice after all. There I said it! Quite frankly they should be wiped off before you leave church. They are disgusting and smelly smears that symbolize our destiny and internal, immovable tragic flaw and call us to repent in a far more meaningful way than wearing a dunce cap for a day.
We are tragic creatures. Perhaps the most enduring genre of storytelling is the tragedy. We can’t get enough of good tragedies, from Sophocles to Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy. We hate it as much as we love it. A tragedy is a work of art that tells the story of a hero who suffers an internal flaw. Yet if the writer is brilliant he will lead his audience to momentarily believe the hero will succeed only to watch him climatically fail. The protagonist cannot escape his destiny. He cannot overcome who he is, nor turn around his destiny! And in our guts we all know it. Do you know anyone like that?
We love a good tragedy because we consciously or subconsciously agree with what it says about humanity even our own lives.
We witness this truth in ourselves and each other. Holy Scripture confirms it. We are a tragic lot after all and we know it, Christian or whatever else you might call yourself. Left to our own devices we will screw it up! So we mourn on Ash Wednesday, saying, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” No matter the cards tell to us, no matter the circumstances that give us hope, we will fall, we will die. Every funeral is a tragedy. The human race is one big tragedy.
Miraculously the end of our story is overturned. Not because we find a way to overcome our flaw or escape our fate, but because we are not the protagonist in our story. The Son of Man is.
Unlike Greek drama, where the gods play games with the mortal’s fate, Jesus interweaves himself into our tragic drama by taking over the protagonist’s role in the womb of Mary quite literally. He becomes man, mankind, the everyman.
At first Jesus plays the perfect tragic hero. He is born with a destiny that will take Him to an ignoble death, no matter the opportunities presented for Him change course. For a while, when reading the gospels, the audience hopes that Christ would triumph as he did before, performing miracles, gaining fame…but, like all tragedies, sure enough, there He is at the end alone bleeding, and crying to His Father, ‘why have you forsaken me’. But he isn’t there because of his tragic flaw. Or is God’s tragic flaw-love? He is there because of ours. And He is exactly where He wanted to be; Where His father wanted him to be; Where He was destined to be before the creation of the world. He takes our place in the story! Our immovable destiny falls upon Him. And we escape fate!