From Alleluias to Ashes
Today we stand between the alleluias of Christmas/Epiphany and the Ashes of Lent. It's like standing where a very cold front is about to meet a very warm one. The transition is radical, sudden, intense. In New Orleans, they make a big deal on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, of tolling the bell at midnight and forcing everyone indoors, off the street. The party is over; Lent has begun. We mark this abrupt transition to Lent by following the tradition of not singing the alleluias after today till Easter. This is called "burying the alleluias." Some churches actually "bury" them in a small coffin placed at the front of the church as a reminder for all to see that the somber season of Lent has begun.
Nice tradition, but who wants to make the trip from alleluias to ashes? Who wants to mute their joy? Who wants to go from "Joy to the World" to "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted?" Peter sure didn't. Our text opens by telling us it is "eight days after Jesus said this." Said what? Said that He must suffer many things, be rejected by the highest church leaders, and be murdered. When Peter had heard about the passionate suffering and death of Jesus, he had said, "Never." No ashes for Peter. Even though Moses and Elijah come from heaven to speak about this very thing, the departure of Jesus which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem, Peter wants to stay on the mountain. He doesn't want to get on with the departure, the ashes.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, there are alleluias. Glorious, loud, victorious alleluias. There is no suffering and death here. There is Elijah who was miraculously rescued from death several times. There is Moses who rather than suffer at the hands of his enemies made them suffer. "Lord is it good to be here. Up here, who cares if the church leaders reject You?"
Can you blame Peter? I can't. I would much rather stay in the joy and celebration of the Christmas/Epiphany season. Give me the bright white paraments of Christmas, rather than the deep purple of Lent. Give me a church decked with banners, rather than the bare walls of Lent. Give me alleluias not ashes. Besides, why can't I have them always? After all, don't I know that my Redeemer lives? After all, hasn't Christ already risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity? Why do I need to go back to the ashes every year? Why can't I stay with Peter on the Mount of Alleluias?
I'll tell you a little secret. Jesus doesn't want to make the trip from alleluias to ashes either. I conclude this from the fact that Luke tells us Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration to pray. First Luke records how Jesus bluntly predicted His passionate suffering to His disciples. The next thing Luke tells us is that Jesus went up to this mountain to pray. Don't think Jesus is so very different from you. As you face a difficult time in your life, don't you pray about it? Surely Jesus did too.
Jesus is praying much like He did in Gethsemane where an angel came from heaven to strengthen Him. Here men from heaven come. If they were there for the disciples' benefit, then Jesus would have brought all of them up there to see them, and He wouldn't have forbidden the 3 who were there to tell anyone about it till after His resurrection as Matthew tells us He did. Jesus prayed about the upcoming ashes because He too prefers alleluias. Jesus too prefers the Mountain of glory to the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus too knows the rest of the story. He knows it ends in His resurrection. He too would rather skip ahead to that...but He doesn't.
So everyone wants alleluias not ashes, Peter does, I do, you do, Jesus does. Yet for centuries the church has had Ash Wednesday. Do you know why? Because no one can avoid the ashes in life. No one can remain on the mountain forever. In this fallen world everyone must descend not just to the plain, as we sang in the hymn, but all the way into the valley of ashes.
As badly as Peter wants to stay on the mountain, as much as he thinks he can make that happen by putting up 3 shelters, one for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, he is wrong. Shortly he will walk down the mountain and come face to face with a demon that 9 apostles can't cast out. Peter is going to go on to witness Jesus teach and preach and heal and deliver only to be rejected by the brightest clergymen of the day. Eventually Peter will blatantly deny he knows Jesus. Then he will see "ashes" covering Jesus from head to toe as He hangs dead and defeated on the cross. I say "defeated" because on Good Friday not one disciple thought Jesus had won. Unlike Elijah and Moses who had gone out of this world gloriously, to strains of heavenly alleluias, Jesus would go out bitterly, darkly, under an ashen sky.
Who can avoid the ashes? Can you? I can't. O to see only the bright Christmas tree and the empty tomb all year, but that's not what I see in my day to day life. I see sin, death and the devil all around me. I am like Pig Pen in the Peanuts Cartoon, but rather than a cloud of dirt hanging around me, ashes do. Everywhere I go, every thought I think, every deed I do, every word I say is tainted by ashes. I don't hear or feel alleluias when I come face to face with disease and death; I taste ashes. I don't hear alleluias in my day to day life as I see people thrown this way and that by the workings of Satan. I hear "Ashes, ashes we all fall down." I want no part of these ashes. I want to pretend they are not there. I want Easter lilies not ashes, but still they fall like snow over everything in my life. I can no more run between the ashes than I can run between snow flakes.
Who can avoid the ashes of life? I can't; neither can Jesus. And though we don't like to think about it, we know the ashes have been there for Jesus since Christmas. We have always known that Jesus didn't come into this world to sing alleluias but to be smeared with ashes. The wise men gave Him myrrh because they knew He would die. The business of His Father that He had to be about was the business of suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying. There is painting that dates to 1535 that shows this well. Mary holds a Baby Jesus smiling as only a mother can at her newborn baby. Baby Jesus, however, is struggling, squirming. A band of angels on the side hold a crystal vase. Jesus is frightened because the crystal vase the angels are holding has the faint outline of a cross on it.
If there is ever to be alleluias in the world Jesus must have ashes. There is a divine necessity to this. Jesus speaks of it whenever He predicts His suffering and death to His disciples. He says that He must be rejected by the Church leaders; He must suffer, and He must die. And so it is for us dear friends. We even sing this, of all places, in an Easter hymn. We sing, "Made like Him, like Him we rise. Ours the CROSS, the GRAVE , the skies." Even though Christ did die for our sins, even though Christ did rise victorious over them, we aren't going to get out of this life without bitter ashes because we are following One who went the way of ashes.
When you're face to face with the ashes of life, it is time to shut-up and listen to Jesus. That is the reason the Church historically has added a midweek service during Lent. We have another opportunity to shut-up and listen to Jesus. We are like Peter, or at least I am, who babbles though the text tells us he doesn't know what he is saying. Peter has been hearing that Jesus must go to suffer and die. He must go through ashes when He departs at Jerusalem. Peter doesn't like that idea, nor do I, so he babbles and I along with him. But the Father descends in a cloud and says, "Listen to Jesus."
Peter thinks the only way to have alleluias is to avoid the ashes. Just skip over Lent and get on to Easter. Always think happy, jolly thoughts; don't get bogged down in the rejection, persecution, and crucifixion of Jesus. Ah, you might be thinking, "Well Peter couldn't avoid the ashes. He was with Christ. He had to live through the ashes to get to the alleluias, but we don't. That is all in the past." Think again. That's the teaching of health and wealth religion which says if you follow the risen Christ, you don't need to live with ashes. But the teaching of the Bible, of the Jesus we are suppose to listen to, says just the opposite. If you follow the risen Christ, you will know ashes because you are counted as sheep to be slaughtered, because all who live godly in this life will suffer, because in this fallen world Christ is always crucified and those who follow Him are too.
But the good news is that Jesus also tells us ashes are not inconsistent with alleluias. Just because you will have the ashes of sin, sickness and suffering in your day to day life, doesn't mean you can't have alleluias. We will see this during Lent. Jesus in the midst of the ashes will institute His Supper. When there is nothing but ashes before Him, Jesus sets before His disciples His Body and Blood for their forgiveness, life and salvation. Our sins, our sicknesses, even our death and decay into ashes, don't nullify the alleluias Christ won for us.
This is true, but there is a greater truth, one that is not so easily learned. One that is only found in what Jesus says. A truth that cannot be reasoned out, felt, or seen. This truth is that the only way to get to the alleluias we so desperately want is to go through the ashes. Far from seeking to avoid the bitter taste of ashes, far from trying not to be smudged by them, we are to embrace them. Yes, yes, though all human wisdom, all human feelings tell us, urge us, assure us that the way to alleluias is to never get sick, never get old, never have hardship, never have difficulty, Jesus tells us the path to alleluias is through the valley of the shadow of death, suffering and ashes.
Friends, the resurrection we long for only takes place at graves. The healing Christ has is only for the sick not for the healthy. The forgiveness Christ won by His suffering and death on the cross is only for sinners not for holy people. The alleluias of Easter are only for those in the ashes of Lent. This truth is why our Lord told us two weeks ago: blessed are those who mourn now. Yes blessed are those who find themselves knee deep in ashes now for they are the ones who will be comforted.
Do you see what this means? When you find ashes on your face, it is not just an indication that you are a sinner but that you are forgiven. Christ can't forgive the holy, only the sinful. When you're face to face with your grave, it is not just an indication that you are going to die, but that Christ is going to raise you. Christ can't raise the living, only the dead. We can't avoid the ashes in this life. We know this, don't we? He told us from the beginning that our life story would be one of ashes to ashes, but in Lent we hear the amazing thing that Christ takes ashes on His holy body in order to raise our unholy ones from the ashes. If He can do this with the ashes of our bodies, there is nothing He can't do with the ashes in our lives. He can even bring alleluias from them as you will see come Easter morning. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Transfiguration (2-25-01) Luke 9:28-36