A few months ago I worked to finish a couple of small remodeling projects at home. Our home was built in the era of “popcorn” ceilings. Patty wanted a different look. I had already scraped the ceilings and hand textured two bedrooms. Now it was time to move to our bedroom and hallway. Messy. Dry joint compound produces fine dust as it is scraped from the ceiling. What little hair I do have was full of this fine dust. I wore a mask and looked a bit like a raccoon as the dust adhered to my face. All the woodwork in th room along with the window sills were covered too. In the process of scraping the room was filled with a haze of this fine dust.
We will hold an Ash Wednesday service this evening. The Daily Oklahoman carried an article on a church in Moore also celebrating Ash Wednesday. (Rarely do Baptist Churches, much less Southern Baptist Churches, recognize Ash Wednesday and Lent. The church in the article is a Methodist Church.) As the sign of the cross is marked on the forehead one may say, ” Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” Little doubt such a statement points to our own mortality. Nothing like a humble reminder of just who we are.
Ash Wednesday may well be an illustration of kingdoms in conflict. At the very least, the day signals the somber intersection of the Incarnation and Redemption.
Dallas Willard, in a conference last year, suggested our kingdom (a person’s) is the effective range of our will. He used the illustration of a woman’s purse. There is not one of us who would feel comfortable taking a look through a woman’s purse without asking permission. If I select a woman’s purse to pick up and go through without her permission, I have intersected her “kingdom” and sought to extend my own “kingdom.”
We might witness an illustration of the intersection of the Kingdom of God and human kingdoms at the Transfiguration (the Gospel text for this past Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary). We look in on the “three” as they witness the glory of Jesus. This may offer the pre-figuring of the glory about which Paul referred to in Phil. 2. Rather than consider his “equality with God a thing to be grasped,” Jesus, “made himself nothing.” Not long after that event on that high mountain Luke records, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”(Luke 9:51, ESV) Could his coming down the mountain remind us of the Incarnation and his face set toward Jerusalem recall Redemption? Here the Kingdom of God intersects human kingdoms.
We choose to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent as it calls us out of living in our own kingdom narratives and relocates we who trust Jesus into the larger narrative that is the story of God. The rigors of the 40 days call our attention in acute ways to the realty of the grace and mercy of God. Some indeed may view this experience as routine. However, to some it is a signal for reflection, penitence and humility. The experience helps me combat the idea it is all about me and instead alters my view of reality. It is about the grace of God.
Writing nearly 40 years ago regarding the Kingdom of God and our place in this world, Jacques Ellul wrote,
“[Explicating the words of Jesus, “I send you out as sheep among wolves.]” On the contrary, all these expression denote a stark reality, from which it is impossible to escape. Here Jesus Christ confronts us with the specific function of the Christian – and there can be no other. Things cannot be otherwise; the Christian has no choice – if he does not accept this function, he does not fulfill the part assigned to him. He then betrays both Jesus Christ and the world. Of course he can always immerse himself in good works , and pour out his energy in religious or social activities, but all this will have not meaning unless he is fulfilling the only mission with which he has been charged by Jesus Christ, which is first of all to be a sign(Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom,p.5).
Living into the larger narrative keeps us from getting lost in our own kingdoms and offers to the world the “sign” of the grace and covenant of God.