The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. It begins in the middle of the story, and ends before it’s over.
Mark begins John baptizing people in the Jordan River. There’s no wise men, no manger or shepherds. There’s no virgin Mary or stunned Joseph. There’s no Christmas at all. There’s just John, the wild and wooly prophet telling people to change their lives and minds, and look forward to the coming one. Jesus shows up pretty quickly, and is baptized. As he comes out of the water, Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Thus marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus marks the beginning of the musical Godspell. Thus marks our beginning of Lent, and our photo journal. For the next few weeks I will be writing and reflecting on different themes, songs, and stories that are found in Godspell. After a prologue, Godspell begins with John the Baptist blowing the shofar and calling the people to baptism. In our production, the children are the first ones up. Then they bring the adults with them to the stage. We sing joyfully, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” until Jesus comes to be baptized as well. It is the start of the musical. More importantly, it is the start of our journey. We are invited this week to take pictures of things that makes us think of “Prepare the Way,” and words like begin, embark, baptize, water, and Spirit. Some began the journey by sharing pictures, all of which you can see on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter using the hashtag #tryLENT. These are some that were shared on various social media:
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. It begins with these words: “From dust were you formed, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These were the words I used as I applied ashes to the foreheads and hands of those that came forward on Ash Wednesday. As the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a chance to take the sign of the cross in ash, and begin the journey toward Easter. We begin the season of Lent with reminder of our own mortality, a call to repentance, and a call to faith.
Why then, on the first Sunday of Lent do we share the story of Jesus being baptized? Why the sudden shift from Death, mortality, and repentance to baptism? Because it really isn’t that much of a shift. The words of the imposition of ashes are a poignant reminder, and an apt starting point for the journey of Lent.
“From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.” This has not only a theological truth rooted in the second creation story as found in Genesis 2. It has a scientific truth in our understanding of the cosmos. Carl Sagan is famously quoted as saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” All of this is to say that we are mortal. The human body was made as a fragile vessel.
When we take on the ash of the cross we are reminded of the simple fact that we will die. The truth of death is one of the only universals of life. It is something we all share. Yet it it is a truth we seldom want to acknowledge. It is good, every now and then, to be reminded of our own mortality. Not to dwell in morbidity or to scare people into believing. Instead, I like to remind myself and others of our mortality so as to savor every breath. Yes, we were formed from dust and to dust we will return. But in between, we are fill with breath. We are filled with life. We are filled with spirit.
On Ash Wednesday my daughter came forward to receive ashes. I placed my finger on her forehead, rubbed some dirt on her and said, “From dust you were formed, and to dust you will return.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and I could scarcely get the words out. It was too much. It was the truth, but in that moment it felt like too much truth. Somehow I got the words out. I was thankful that this was not the end of the imposition. I had more words to speak. Through my tears, I put my hand on her shoulder and continued, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”
And thus we get back to the beginning. “Repent and believe in the good news,” was the heart of John’s message while he was baptizing. It was Jesus’ first message after coming back from the wilderness. In Mark 1:16, Jesus says, “Now is the time! Here comes the God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Common English Bible). This translation gives us the meaning for repent. For too many teachers and preachers repentance has to do with shame and guilt. Repentance though, is not about shame. It is about orienting. It is not about looking back, it is about looking ahead. It acknowledges that we have fallen short, but repentance does not allow us dwell on sin. When we repent, we turn. At the beginning of Lent, and at the beginning of this journey, we are invited to repent.
Turn away from those things that distract us from God. Turn away from the things that pull us away from life. Turn away from the things that get in the way of loving God and loving others. Turn toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Turn toward justice, healing, and peace. Turn toward grace. Repent, and believe the good news. And what is that good news? It goes back to Jesus being baptized. When he got out of the water, there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11, Common English Bible).
The ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They are reminder that we must turn away from the things that keep us from life and toward the things of God. And they are reminder of this good news that we may all share. “You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter, whom God dearly loves. In you God finds happiness.” To believe this statement is as true of me as it is of Jesus is not to believe I am the messiah. It is to understand that God’s love is so full, so abundant, so steadfast, that even I am God’s son. I was formed from dust, given the breath of life, and offered the water of baptism. I am God’s son, adopted into God’s family not because I earned my way to such a distinction, but only by the grace of God.
This is good news. This is truly remarkable news. This is amazing news. It is the kind of news I want to share. It is the kind of news that makes me want to sing. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe in the good news. Prepare the way for a journey with Christ.”
From February 25-March 3 we’re invited to reflect on “Day by Day.” This song in the musical comes in a time when the community coming together. The song includes the beautiful prayer “See thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” So the words we should look for are things like follow, grow, see, community, friendship. Please share pictures using #tryLENT
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If you’re in the Quad Cities on Palm Sunday, check out Godspell at Two Rivers United Methodist Church