There Is an Ancient Egyptian Myth…, Ash Wednesday – 1999
February 17, 1999
There is an ancient Egyptian myth about a bird which regenerates itself by burning itself up. Imagine, the living phoenix literally makes an offering of itself: it carefully builds a nest, settles down in it, and burst into flame. From the ashes left by those flames emerges a magnificent reborn bird. The new phoenix is so beautiful that it has been dedicated to the sun in all its glory. Think of the courage it took to do this. The bird knows it must die to create a new bird in its place. Not only must it die, but it must also be burned until nothing is left of it but ashes. Think of the faith this bird has in the process of creation.
Ash Wednesday offers us a chance of dying into new birth. The liturgy reminds us of our humble beginnings. It asks that we bring to God all those things that hold us back from being all that we are called to be in God’s image. The service prescribes not a literal burning fire into which we must plunge ourselves but rather a ritual and litany of penitence. Taken seriously, this ritual and litany allow us to burn away those things which prevent us from feeling God’s love and from being who we were created to be. Like the phoenix, we are called to put our entire life into the nest.
Ash Wednesday calls us to inspect our lives. We are to look at how we treat one another. We are to look at how we care for the earth. We are to look at how we praise and give thanksgiving to our God. And, according to Jesus, we are to do this without fanfare. And so on Ash Wednesday, we take a close look at our lives and willingly throw them into the nest of Lent. In Lent, we allow our fasts, our rituals, our prayers, and our studies to clean and burn away that which prevents us from growing in Christ.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on this earth. What better imagery is needed than the burning of our odd “treasures”: those hurts we bear against one another, the anger we allow to simmer under our false smiles, the rumors we allow to go round and round, the finger-pointing and shaming that we participate in, the inability to love ourselves and each other with forgiveness. We often hold onto these things, treasuring the pain they bring to our lives. There is a certain amount of false power in these treasures. They give us a false sense of importance and control. We hold onto them because we are frightened of the freedom of letting them go.
Perhaps we need to “fast” from these behaviors — give them up for Lent. Isaiah suggests as much when he says we must “fast from pointing the finger.” The Epistle reading for today suggests to the people of Corinthian that they become reconciled to God. We, like they, must reconcile ourselves to God. The place to begin is to reconcile ourselves with one another. We need to fast. We need to refrain from indulging in rumors and hurtful actions. We need to break our habits of shaming and judging one another. These behaviors get in the way our being able to focus on God’s love for us. They get in the way or our reconciling with one another. The litany of today’s service allows us to move away from these behaviors. The service provides a place for confession and forgiveness. We are encouraged to forgive ourselves, to forgive one another, and to accept God’s forgiveness in our lives.
With forgiveness comes the freedom of letting go of anger and self-pity. Letting go of anger and self-pity allows for energy to concentrate on feeding those who hunger for compassion, for understanding, for help. God calls on people to serve one another. Jesus models this servant leadership. He fed the hungry, loved the sinner, forgave people their wrong doings, and showed great compassion for all people.
The Lenten colors of purple, or more traditionally black and unbleached linen, are somber. They do not array themselves in the splendor of the sun’s glorious colors, nor do they offer the joy of the gold and white of Easter. But they point the way toward the glorious and bright colors of Easter. They remind us to look into ourselves. They remind us to burn away that which is self-destructive. The Lenten colors are a solemn call to prayerful listening for God’s voice. The colors remind us that this is a time for fasting from that which turns us from God. In freeing ourselves from destructive behaviors, we open ourselves to the love of God and to serving God’s people.
It takes courage and faith to view these colors and to look into ourselves and to follow God’s servant leader. Yet, we can do it knowing that “the joy of his resurrection” and our new life will follow. We will rise at Easter with Jesus, the risen Christ, new and magnificent. Our faces will shine with joy at knowing that ours is a God of forgiveness and new beginnings. Knowing that Easter follows Lent does not make the introspection of the time any easier for most of us. Knowing that Easter follows Lent does, however, add faith and courage to our exploration of self and God.
From the ashes of Ash Wednesday, we can rise, knowing that our dying brings eternal life with Christ Jesus.
The phoenix knew that in order to survive it would have to die to new life. This paradox is at the center of our Baptism, Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter. In order to live most fully, we become new creations in Christ. We go through a dying in order to live as God calls us to live – fully and with joy and compassion.
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