The thing I must dislike about the American Christianity that has produced me is the way in the call of Christ to holiness is mixed the call of Alger Hiss to pull myself up by my bootstraps. Imagine the frustration of a young boy trying to be good; but knowing deep down the impossibility of the task. The hurt. The anger. The frustration. It vexes the soul and makes Christianity seem a toxic mash determined to steal all the joy from life.
The fact of the manner as the prophet has spoken is this: you are not enough, God is bigger than anything you can imagine or accomplish. The theologian Anselm has said that our debt to Him is so great that we could spend a lifetime giving everything we have to Him and not make a dent in our debt. We cannot, as it were, pull ourselves to meet God. No matter how pretty the Sistine Chapel is, we cannot reach out to God. And even when we do we cannot hope to touch even his finger.
This is bad news to the striver. To the seeker. To the American.
And so we come to the Church today and we watch as our palm fronds (our paltry attempts to honor God, to serve Him, to worship Him) are burned in front of us. We watch the work of our hands, the words of mouths, and the thoughts of our hearts melt in the fires of God’s coming judgment.
This is bad news to the one counting on those fronds to pay his or her way into the New World. To the doer. To the American.
And so we watch as the priest takes these ashes applying them to our heads in the form of the cross. We watch as the cross of Christ transforms our sins into virtues. Our weakness into strength. Our doubt into faith. We watch the mystery of the faith unfurl itself among us. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And on that day Christ will look for these ashes much as the Angel of Death looked for the blood on the doorpost of the Israelites. Like God honored the attempted sacrifice of Isaac providing a ram for the offering. On that day we will be passed over for the ram in the thicket: the body and blood of our Lord will save us from judgment and death.
This is good news. The news that stands out and orders all other news. Christ has paid our ransom and we are free. Christ has conquered the powers of sin and death, The Kingdom of God has come. The Kingdom of God is advancing and where it comes so does freedom, hop, joy, healing, and justice. The Kingdom of God will come to our land. Its King, Jesus Christ, will set all things right. He will renew all things. His justice will reign supreme. His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This good news. The best news. Yet it is only good news to the one willing to see our their work, all their blood, their sweat, their tears, their thoughts, their actions, their sense of rightness, their sense of self, their understanding, their diagrams, their memes, their systems, their systematics, their facebook posts, their twitter rants, their blog posts, all that they were, and are, and will be burn on that altar.
They must let go. They must cease striving. They must cease doing. Cease with the busyness. Cease with the running. The errands. The soccer practices. The classes. The good works. The hymns. The prayers. All must come to silence. All must pass through the flames. It must become an ash covering their body. It must become their shame. Their guilt. Their penitence.
This is good news. But today I wonder how good it is for us, Americans? We have had dreams of royalty and blessing. We have spoken of call and our blessing. We have boasted our righteousness. We have shouted from the rooftops our greatness.
Yet here it stands. In ash. Nothing.
This is good news. But only to the one who can set themselves to the side. Only to those who can let go of their Americanness, if only for a minute. Let us hear the voice of the Lord saying:
“‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’ A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken….’
‘To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?’ Says the Holy One. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?’ Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’”
We must die. This is good news. Because only after death can the life of the Kingdom emerge like a phoenix from the ashes. Strength awaits to those who are exhausted now.