The last line of today’s gospel, “repent, and believe in the good news” are the words that every Lent starts with when we receive the ashes each Ash Wednesday. To repent means to change our minds. To turn 180 degrees. That is not easy to do. It is now believed that the number one addiction in all of us is that we are addicted to our thoughts, our way of thinking. We think things have to be this way and this way only, when in reality it does not have to be that way. It is only that we would like it that way. We would like to bend reality to our way of thinking rather than surrendering the addiction and accepting reality. So, repentance is difficult for all of us, even those of us who consider ourselves to be open-minded.
The other thing we find difficult is believing in the good news. Maybe in our cynical minds, that are re-enforced with so much bad news from the media, our capacity for welcoming good news is compromised. We just can’t believe we can still get something for nothing—like God’s grace—without paying a price somewhere. We secretly fear that we have missed something in the fine print that would remind us that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is too good. So, both repenting and believing in the good news pose challenges.
Getting back to ashes for a moment, the ritual of receiving ashes is actually called the “imposition of ashes.” I hate having anything imposed on me. The ashes are imposed from outside, not freely chosen from the inside. The only choice we have is whether or not we will say yes to the imposition. Our true self just knows that much of life is imposed. We do not choose the weather; it’s imposed. Our false self, our uninitiated ego, just does not want to buy into this reality and would prefer to steer and control every aspect of our faith journey, even to the point of engineering our own salvation. I am thinking of some people who have had chronic sickness imposed on them, and they may have to live with it for the rest of their lives. When they live it with acceptance and not bitterness, as I might be tempted to do if I were in their shoes, then they become faith-filled guides for my own journey. Some people have poverty imposed on them. For whatever reason, they were born into poverty and will probably die in poverty. It is like they are in the desert not for 40 days, not for 40 years, but for their entire lives. Some people have a mental illness imposed on them, that while medication helps, the cloud of darkness remains seemingly forever. For others, grief has imposed itself in their lives without ever being invited in and with no indication of when it will ever leave. Experiences and circumstances of life that are imposed are never the things we deliberately seek, yet we have to find a way of living with them.
The gospel today starts off by saying, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” He was driven there. This imposition would not have been his ego’s first choice, but it was something that his true self needed to say yes to. How do we live with struggles? How do we say yes to the hard things in life? How do we accept things that are imposed on us? The short answer is that none of this is possible without faith. Faith is saying yes to the whole mystery, the mystery of dying and rising knowing that the rising part will be final and ultimately victorious. Like the phoenix, we will rise out of the ashes of Ash Wednesday into the glorious light of Easter Sunday.
Thousands of years prior to organized religion, wisdom cultures felt the need to initiate their young men into adulthood. Without formal initiation, they did not assume boys would naturally grow into men. We have pretty much done away with wisdom cultures in favor of intellectual cultures. Similarly, we have pretty much done away with initiation itself, and the results are disastrous. We can have the most powerful men in politics, business, and even Church who have never grown up. Remember, at the heart of any true initiation there is a death, the death of the imperial ego, the ego that always wants to look good and always has to be right.
In these ancient wisdom cultures, without initiation—that always came from your elders and never from your peers—you were not allowed to marry, have children or take on any leadership role within your community. That is how important initiation was considered.
I share with you now the five messages boys on the cusp of adulthood had to learn before they were even remotely considered men. By the way, initiation never happened in a classroom. You were to go off into the wilderness, just like Jesus did, in order get in touch with your soul. I share these not only for the benefit of us men, but also for you woman. For the first time in the history of the world, women now need initiation too.
Here are the five messages that the uninitiated ego despises and tries to avoid.
1) Life is hard.
2) You are going to die.
3) You are not that important.
4) You are not in control.
5) Your life is not about you.
What an insult to the ego! Of course, when children are young, they do not have enough healthy ego development to deal with this, and you certainly do not impose these messages on them. But before they become adults, they will have to learn these five hard lessons. Life itself will impose these five truths, but wouldn’t it be better if they could be guided through them by elders who have lived through these themselves?
Now comes the parallel truths, or what is called the “common wonderful.” Without faith in these parallel truths, these five lessons would be hard to handle, if not impossible. Let’s read these messages again but this time through the lens of faith, the lens of the common wonderful.
1) Yes, life is hard, but Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”
2) Yes, you are going to die, but St. Paul reminds us that, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
3) It is true that you are not that important, yet Jesus says, “Your name is written in heaven.”
4) It is true that you are not in control, but Jesus says, “For all your worrying, can you add a second to your life?”
5) And finally, it is true that your life is not about you; it is about God in you. Life is not about you; you are about life.
Jesus is the pattern. He goes into the desert to live his own initiation rite. In living it he embraces the hard truths as well as the common wonderful. The pattern of his life is the pattern of all our lives. Where he has gone, we hope to follow.
Fr. Phil Mulligan