Ash Wednesday has ancient roots for us as Christians.
It means we are 40 days out from Easter.
It also remembers that Jesus began his ministry with 40 days in the wilderness, which provides some direction for how we might spend these next 40 days.
For Jesus in the wilderness, they were 40 days of self-purification, which is to say, 40 days of wrestling with temptation.
The church in its history has tended to see this as good for us, too.
Accordingly, that’s something you hear a lot about in church during Lent—our own temptations.
But that’s not all that Jesus was wrestling with.
It’s also important to remember that not all wrestling is the same thing as fighting or resisting.
There’s also the kind of wrestling that is better described as “grappling,” which is to say, it’s the kind of wrestling that is “coming to terms” with something—about finding a way to accept it.
I wonder if that is also some of what might be going on for Jesus in the wilderness.
What might he have been grappling with?
We sometimes forget that when Jesus went out into the wilderness, it was also an act of memory.
In doing so, he remembers the 40 years that the Hebrew people wandered as they escaped slavery in Egypt and went in search of the promised land.
That is its own story, of course, as told in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.
But one part of it is especially helpful for us tonight.
Because one question that faithful people have had about those 40 years in the wilderness is fairly straightforward: why did it have to be so long?
One answer I have found especially poignant over the years is that it took 40 years for two things to happen: first, for the next generation to be born, and second, for the generation of those who had escaped to pass away.
That was sadly necessary, not because God was punishing them, but because they were unable to come to terms with their past.
Even with all that God had done and was doing, they were unable to escape it emotionally and spiritually.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Book of Exodus records that as God’s people wandered in the wilderness, there were moments when they even missed aspects of their old lives.
It’s misunderstood as an expression of their stubbornness, but what it truly suggests is something much more tragic.
The trauma of life under Pharoah had been that profound…that permanent.
There was nobody to teach them how to move forward. To regain their purpose. Literally, their sense of direction.
God is sustaining them, feeding them manna – daily bread – and they have no sense of God in their midst.
And so they wandered.
It is important for us to remember that.
In that same spirit, when Jesus goes into the wilderness for his own 40 days of temptation and self-purification, it is an act of honoring the history of God’s people. His people.
It is remembering those who had been too wounded…too traumatized…to claim the freedom to which God was trying to lead them.
This is what he’s grappling with.
Jesus would commit his own ministry to seeing and trying to bring healing to the wounded of his own time and place.
He wanted them to claim the freedom…the hope…the notion of a future in God that life had seemed to deny them.
And he wanted them to know that God was sustaining them…that once again, God was in their very midst.
That’s also what God wants for us as we begin this odd and sort of antiquated 40 day season of Lent.
It is a season of reflection and, in some ways, also of regret.
But it’s not about making a point of feeling guilt or shame or sadness—it’s not trying to make us feel those things.
It is simply acknowledging that we do, in ways that are obvious and hidden, known and unknown, and that with God’s help, we don’t have to, because God is here with us in the midst of them, working to heal us and show us a different and better future.
Lent is about following the example of Jesus, and about being willing to ask ourselves about our own wounds, and how we’ve learned to walk with them.
Have we truly found a way to heal, or are we just adept at using things to dull the pain?
To put it in more traditionally theological language: are we really open to the promise of new and abundant life—the liberation God offers?
Do we want Easter for ourselves?
Or do we know ourselves only in reciting the familiar pains and resentments of the old life, whatever they may be?
Lent is about finding a way to learn from them and let go.
Not everyone can.
In the novel Great Expectations, Charles Dickens includes the haunting character of Miss Havisham, a wealthy woman, now old, who was left at the altar on her wedding day decades earlier.
And money, pride and pain then collaborate to make the rest of her life into a dramatic performance of her wounds.
She sits alone in her house, still in her wedding dress, with the decaying remains of an uneaten wedding banquet all around her, and the clocks throughout the house are stopped at the exact time when she first learned of her rejection.
This is not to say that she does not deserve compassion.
Rather, it is to note that she has become her own jailor.
She has become a prisoner to the moment at which she decided time itself had stopped, and now she is beyond the reach of hope or help.
Along those lines, Ash Wednesday urges us to name for ourselves the many ways we might be doing something like that, too.
It offers a way forward by inviting us to live in ways that practice the presence of Jesus.
It’s saying that we must not let the bad things, the painful things, become our whole story—not by ignoring them, which usually just ends up giving them more power—but by acknowledging them and then taking our cue from a very different story: the ongoing story of God’s redeeming love.
God’s love can transform suffering into compassion, connection, and new life.
It can set us free, if we are willing to receive it.
Tonight, God signals the presence of Christ even in the ashes of our lives.
It promises that even there, amid all our Good Fridays, God is at work to make us into an Easter people, teaching to receive our daily bread and to remember that wherever we may go, we do not walk alone.