Oil and Ashes

Preached on 14 February 2016 at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle, Wa
First Sunday in Lent, Year C

A number of years ago, a priest dipped his thumb in beautifully fragrant olive oil.  With it he traced a cross on my forehead, and assured me, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own, forever.”  My identity would always be linked with Christ’s.  Life in Christ is eternal.

Just a few days ago, a priest dipped her thumb in a bowl of ashes from burned up old palm leaves.  With it, she traced a cross on my forehead, leaving a black smudge in roughly the same place as that now-invisible, but forever-present cross in oil – the seal of the Holy Spirit, the mark of my baptism, the source of my identity.  She said to me, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  A reminder that we are mortal; our time on earth is limited.

Those of us gathered were invited to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In the early church, before Lent was Lent, Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection was the primary baptismal feast.  Beforehand, candidates for Holy Baptism entered a period of intense preparation including study, prayer, self-examination and repentance.

Whether or not you can remember your baptism; and whether or not the details of the ritual were like mine, you are marked as Christ’s own, forever.  And even if you were never baptized, you are God’s beloved child.

It is because of this Truth that we come to church to have someone smear ashes on our foreheads and remind us that we are mortal.  It is in the context of the Reality of our relationship with God through Christ that we enter into the observance of Lent, with or without ashes.  We are preparing to claim or reclaim our identity in Christ when we renew our baptismal covenant at Easter.

And so our Journey toward Easter begins.  It is a journey of Identity.  We begin with a look into the identity of Jesus – with his baptism.  Ok, we have to back up a few verses, but we always start Lent this way.

Remember, just a few weeks ago, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, just as we do every year.  In Luke’s account, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  Then, while he is praying, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove and there’s the Voice, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”

With those words ringing in his ears and full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led in the Wilderness where he is tested by the devil for forty days.

What does this story tell us about the identity of Jesus; about his character?  What does it tell us about the nature of his relationship with God? What do you notice in this story?  What stands out?

Here are a few of the things I notice.

First, I notice how fully human Jesus is in this story.  He fasts for 40 days and is famished.  The devil has been testing him for all that time and Jesus continues to face the temptations.  We come in at the very end of his ordeal. I imagine he is weary, exhausted.

I notice the nature of temptation itself.  In each instance, the devil tries to draw Jesus away from his true self; away from his identity.  He tries to drive a wedge in his relationship with God.  Twice he casts doubt on his identity, “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “prove it.”  The devil tells him he is inadequate, that God’s power is not enough; he must seize power for himself and turn away from God.

I wonder, what if Jesus had been the kind of messiah many had hoped for.  If he had come in power and might, overthrowing the Romans and restoring the kingdom of Israel, who would have heard Good News?  Would it have reached the poor and marginalized; the lame, the lepers, the outcasts and sinners; the prisoners and prostitutes?  Would the gospel have reached to the ends of the Earth?

And I notice that Jesus turns to scripture to counter the challenges the devil throws at him.  It’s a matter of his identity.  Yes, he is the Son of God – as the Voice proclaimed at his baptism.  At the same time, he is a man, a Jew living in first century Palestine under Roman occupation.  He is rooted in the history and religion of a particular people in a particular place and time and their Holy Scripture is his Holy Scripture.

Now, what do you notice?

This first week of Lent, I invite you to spend some time contemplating the identity of Jesus.  Then consider how Jesus is the source of your identity. You are rooted in Christ.  What do you think that means?

How might it play out in your life?

Remember, you are a Beloved Child of God.
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Oil and ashes.  Ashes and oil.