In the End the Beginning

Psalm 118:22-24 The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (41)

Introduction

“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” (Ps 118:24). Are there any words more fitting than those for today? Today we rejoice in the activity of God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the risen Lord Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified, died, and was buried, the one who descended to the dead, and the one who was raised from it. What appeared to be gone, was the furthest thing from. What sounded like bad news, wasn’t. What looked like sure failure became a means for something else. All because a rock was moved, and a tomb was opened. What seemed the end, was the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where everything that was, is (now) not the only thing there is. Today is the day we celebrate an action so divine in substance and impact that someone walking out of a tomb—who had been sealed in—became possible. That’s not the trajectory of activity when it comes to tombs. When you’re sealed in with a massive stone, you do not come back out. But divine action made the impossible possible; the new was ushered in.[1] On this day the possibility opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where all the doors of the building are thrown open. Today is the day we celebrate a redefinition of what it means to worship God and to be God’s people. What was restricted to wood and stone, to brick and mortar is now set loose into the world in spirit and flesh. The very thing that kept God separate from the people was destroyed. The temple veil was torn in two, and the holy transcended and coupled with the common bypassing the rulers and authorities, seeping into the fringes and margins of society.[2] On this day the temple opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the entire sky bursts forth with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the cessation of incessant rains[3] and the rising of the sun with healing in its wings.[4] This sun shines down, enlivens and invigorates chilled and tired bodies drained from resisting and enduring separation and silence. The sun breaks through the clouds of chaos bringing comfort and peace to those minds exhausted from trying “…to be a man with/A peace of mind/Lord, I try/I just can’t find/My peace of mind”—borrowing lyrics from a talented former student of mine.[5] On this day the sky opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to this story—where the very ground underneath violently shook. Today is the day we celebrate great divine movement of the earth opening again. This time, God and God’s self dropped into the pit of Sheol; drawing light to shine among the darkness of the dead.[6] Here God searches and finds and looks upon the face of Korah, and as God’s hand extends God declares: Beloved, not even the exile of death and the pit can separate you from me. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.

Mark 16:1-8

Then very early on the first day of the week [the women] went to the tomb after the rising of the sun. And they were continuously talking to themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” (Mk 16:2-3[7])

Mark 16:2-3, translation mine

Mark highlights the humanity of the women, thus showcases the divine action of this story.[8] The beginning of the gospel passage opens with what feels like minutia. At the completion of the Sabbath, being Saturday night,[9] the women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—purchase spices and perfumes to use on Jesus’s entombed body. Then, early the next morning, they head out.

Apart from Jesus being buried in haste the previous Friday evening, none of this is worth writing home about. Nothing—so far—is out of the ordinary. In fact, Mark robes the story in so much humanity, he writes about the women worrying as they walk to the tomb. The greatly great stone occupied their conversation as they walked. Our English translation misses the extent this stone bothered the consciences of the women. In Greek, it’s an imperfect verb indicating a continuous action. Thus, they didn’t just ask themselves once about who will roll away the stone; they literally talked about it the entire time.

And then looking up and beholding/gazing that the stone has been rolled away; for it was exceedingly great.

Mark 16:4

Then suddenly all conversation comes to a dead halt. The women lift their eyes and behold: the very thing they were worried about is removed. The stone was rolled back. What was a regular scene is now an irregular one enveloped in supernatural activity.[10] Our translation loses the emotion here. The women didn’t just look and see. As the tomb comes into view, they lift their eyes up from having been talking among themselves, and, as they draw near to the tomb, they see…it…#wut? They gazed and beheld the scene: the greatly great stone was rolled away. Their hearts raced as they gazed in disbelief while trying to make sense of an impossibility made possible. Everything changes here.[11]

As they step inside the tomb, they do not see the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth, which they expected to see. Rather they encounter one whom they did not expect: a young man clothed in bright light, an angelic being.[12] Thus, onto disbelief there is added great astonishment and fear. Their entire world does not make sense.[13] Then, adding to the topsy-turvy situation making itself known, the brightly clothed young man says, “Do not be greatly astonished! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene the one who was crucified; he was raised, he is not here. Behold the place where they placed him” (Mk 16:6). The tomb is open, there’s an angelic being casually seated inside, and Jesus’s body is not there with the declaration that he is risen.

And they went out and fled from the tomb for trembling and bewilderment was holding the women; and they said nothing to no one; for they were terrified.

Mark 16:8

For these three women, fleeing and running in fear and trembling is a very human response considering a remarkable and an unbelievable encounter with the impossible being made possible. He whom they saw crucified and dead was raised[14] and gone out.[15] When time and space shift and change, when the narrative takes a surprising turn, when the thing that is going to happen does not happen, fear and trembling is a right response. When something overhauls reality, you are put on a collision course with the possible and reality reshaping and altering; it’s terrifying. It’s why real love is scary and hard to accept and receive (as Rev. Jan brilliantly made note of on Thursday). Real, unconditional, nonperformance-based love is terrifying because it undoes everything you think you know to be real, to be true, to be actual. The narrative you’ve been given by the world and crafted in your head about you and the world is exposed as myth by real, unconditional love. Thus, good news can be as terrifying as bad news because it radically alters and transforms the reality of the one who hears such good news.[16] And so, the women run and are afraid. But, in the end, the beginning.

Conclusion

As Mark’s gospel suddenly ends on a note of fear, we are propelled back to the beginning.[17] As the women run from the tomb afraid and in silence, we follow and find ourselves located back at Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the good newsof Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[18] The end of Good Friday is now the beginning that is Easter. This is the source of our hope that springs eternal. Today we come into encounter with this God who raised Jesus of Nazareth the Christ from the dead. And today our world is turned upside down by the “mystery of divine love…acted out in human history,” to quote Rev. Emil. Today, in the end the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story— where everything that is, is not the only thing there is. Today is the day we dare to embrace this divine event and step into the possible. Today we dare to dream of what could be for us and for all those around us. Today we dare to reject what has always been and believe, anything is possible with God. Today, the possibility is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where we sit in a similar predicament as did the founders of this humble church. Today we are eager to (re)claim our building, to enter it, to be bodily present with others. Yet, we are asked to reconceive what this building means considering divine activity redefining the temple. Can we open the doors and throw open the windows extending divine love to the fringes and margins, spreading good news in word and deed? Can we remember that we were once homeless and without shelter?[19] Do we really believe that God is not restricted to a building but resides in each of us? Today the temple is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the sky is illuminated with love and hope and peace. Today is the day we celebrate the rising of the Son with healing in its wings for bodies drained from enduring a pandemic, witnessing human life being destroyed, social upheaval, confusion, and isolation; for bodies exhausted from trying to find peace where peace doesn’t reside. Today the sun shines down, warms and energizes our chilled and tired bodies, rejuvenating hope and bringing forth the sapling of long desired peace. Today the sky is opened. In the end, the beginning.

Today is a day—according to our story—where the very ground underneath our feet shook. Today is the day we celebrate the fracturing of old structures and the exposure of the errors and faults of our human judgment and human made systems and kingdoms as the God of life and liberty reigns victorious over death and captivity. We rejoice in the freedom and liberation that is brought in the divine love for the whole world. In the risen Christ, we hear and feel chains and shackles dropping as all the captives are released from the effects of sin and death into new life. On this day the earth opened. In the end, the beginning.


[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/21/and-the-possibility-opens/

[2] John 2:13-22; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/03/07/and-the-temple-opens/

[3] Genesis 9:8ff; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/21/and-the-sky-opens/

[4] Malachi 4:2

[5] Cameron Seaton “Peace of Mind” Cry Me A Song 2020

[6] Numbers 16, Psalm 88; https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/02/17/and-the-earth-opens/

[7] All GNT translations are mine in this portion of the sermon

[8] R.T. France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2002. 675, “The setting for the discovery is remarkably down to earth, with the women coming to fulfil the previously omitted duty of anointing Jesus’ body with perfumes, worrying bout how they were to get into the tomb, meeting there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen and gives them a message for the disciples and Peter, and running way frightened from this unexpected encounter. This is not the stuff of a heroic epic, still less of a story of magic and wonder, and yet what underlies it is an event beyond human comprehension: the Jesus they had watched dying and being buried some forty hours earlier is no longer dead but rise, καθως ειπεν υμιν. It is in this incongruous combination of the everyday with the incomprehensible that many have found one of the most powerful and compelling aspects of the NT accounts not of Jesus’ resurrection…but of how the fist disciples discovered that he had risen.”

[9] France Mark 676, “As sabbath finished at sunset on the Saturday, the phrase διαγενομενου του σαββατου probably refers to the Saturday evening, the first time after Jesus’ hasty burial when it would be possible to buy perfumes.”

[10] France Mark 678, “Rather than arranging with Joseph’s servants to come back with them, they were now trusting to luck that someone would be around to help. But from the dramatic point of view their anxiety is important as the foil to their discovery that the problem was already solved…The unexplained removal of the stone thus begins to create a sense of superhuman agency in the narrative.”

[11] This is Mark’s written intent. The Greek here at the beginning of v.4, και αναβλεψασαι θεωρουσιν…, is an attendant circumstance construction of an aorist participle and a present indicative main verb. The attendant circumstance indicates that something brand new is happening, there’s new action on the table and the author wants you to take note of it.

[12] France Mark 678, “Other features of Mark’s description add to the supernatural impression: he is wearing white, and the women are terrified.”

[13] France Mark 679, “For εκθαμβεομαι…conveys a powerful mixture of shock and fear, and this is followed by τρομος και εκστασις leading to a precipitate flight from the tomb in 16:8. Such a reaction is more consonant with a meeting with an angel than with an ordinary young man, and his first words to the women convey the same impression…”

[14] France Mark 680, “τον εσταυρωμενον, however, poignantly describes what the women at present believe to be the truth about Jesus. Having themselves watched him die on the cross, they have now come to attend to that tortured body, and that is what they expected to find in the tomb. That whole tragic scenario is reversed in the simple one-word message, ηγερθη, though the clause that follow will spell out more fully what this dramatic verb implies.”

[15] France Mark 680, “The women, even if they were unaware of Jesus’ predictions, could not mistake the meaning of this verb in this context. But the νεαωισκος goes on to make it clear that he is talking not merely about survival beyond death but about a physical event: the place where Jesus’ body had been laid…is empty. The body has gone, and from the promise made in the following verse it is plain that it has gone not by passive removal but in the form of a living, travelling Jesus. However philosophy and theology may find it possible to come to terms with the event, it is clear that Mark is describing a bodily resurrection leading to continuing life and activity on earth.”

[16] France Mark 682-3, “…in Mark the sense of panic is unrelieved. The words the women have heard were entirely good news, but their immediate response is apparently not to absorb the message of the words but to escape as quickly as possible from the unexpectedly numinous situation in which they have been caught up.”

[17] France Mark 680-1, “The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is not an end in itself, but the basis of action, which for the women is the delivery of an urgent message, and for the disciples to whom that message is sent a journey to Galilee in preparation for the promised meeting with Jesus…Life, discipleship and the cause of the Kingdom f God must go on.”

[18] France Mark 672, “…the Mark who began his story on an overt note of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God (1:1) and has reminded his readers quite blatantly from time to time of that faith, is not likely to leave any room for doubt about its reality at the end. By the time mark wrote his gospel the message of the resurrection and the soties of meeting with the risen Jesus were so widely in circulation and so central to the life of the Christ church that there was in any case nothing to be gained by concealment: what is the point of being coy about what everyone already knows.”

[19] Reference to a document about the early history of Nativity by Bruce Jones

and The Sky Opens

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:3-4 Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Introduction

Some stories in the First Testament can cause grave internal turmoil. The first five books making up the Torah (the revelation of the law) of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals radical and at times seemingly chaotic stories of God’s relationship with the world, with humanity, and with Israel in specific. It’s no surprise then that “why?” often escapes our lips as we read these stories. Why would God divide humanity by confusing language? Why would God send a flood? Why would God allow Israel to be brought under captivity and thus into exile? Why would God open the ground and swallow not only the guilty Korah but his family as well? If God is a God of love, then Why? Why all this divine disaster and heavenly havoc?

These whys echo a fear living deep in subterranean crevices and crannies of our person and being. As we read these stories they poke and provoke this fear: would I be washed away? dropped into the pit? thrust into exile? destroyed by some theotic whim of a divine bad mood? These questions haunt us as we read through the first testament and contemplate the deeds and activity of God. Under all of it surges what feels like our eternal question on repeat: if God is love how is any of this destruction love?

We get lost in the details of the storied wrath of God and miss the overarching metanarrative of the love-story embedded in and told by the composite biblical story. Truly, because of our human experiences and our self-knowledge and the myths we believe about ourselves and our unloveliness, we identify with the ones swept away and dropped down and not the ones rescued or moved to safety; and these stories terrify us. The seemingly random righteous exceptionalism of Noah becomes the plumbline against which we are shown lacking. So, we get stuck in the flood and forget that the waters recede, we miss the rainbow for the raindrops, and we forget that which God brings to death is raised into new life.

Genesis 9:8-17

“God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…’”

Genesis 9:8-16

We all are familiar with the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark.[1] A flood of assumed divine origin washes the earth clean of the evil and wickedness that has stained the earth and taken up residence in human hearts. What is less familiar to many of us is that the flood story isn’t solely about God’s anger at evil and wickedness on the earth and in the heart. The flood is ultimately about God cleansing that which God loves. I know it may be hard to believe this especially considering the long tradition in the church of overemphasizing God’s anger over and against God’s love—even going to the extent of saying that God’s anger is God’s love, which is just an atrocity in theology causing spiritual trauma rather than trust.

The story about the flood and Noah and the ark isn’t ultimately about wrath but about love. Looking at the arch of the story line floating through the waters of the text, it’s the promise God makes here with Noah that is solid ground for the reader. The promise is the ultimate point, the flood is only the penultimate point. But we get confused; we get stuck in the waters and caught up with the rising tide of divine wrath and conclude that God is primarily angry and then if we are good God is loving. Rather, it’s that God is loving even when we are weak and frail and covered in wickedness and evil.

For the Israelites, the story of the flood represented not strictly God’s active pathos manifest in anger, but God relenting and promising: never again will I do this thing because humanity is weak. It’s in the flood story where God identifies and accepts the weakness of humanity[2] prone to mishearing, misunderstanding, and misstepping. And it’s in the rescue of Noah and his family, the divinely proclaimed upright, with whom God makes a covenant. This covenant is not strictly with Noah and his sons but with the entire world. From this point on, all of humanity is brought under the arching bow of color in the sky. The “offspring” of Noah is not strictly the Noahic family line sharing the same immediate mom and dad. Considering the story mentions that all humanity—save Noah and his family—was washed away in the flood, this means all humanity that now populates the earth are all Noah’s descendants.[3] By the time this story is formed and passed from story teller to story teller, generations upon generations are included in the covenant.[4] And not only humans, but animals (all of them) from the very, very big to the very, very small, are included in the divine spoken promise of never again.[5]

None of us here or any of our foremothers and forefathers knows a time when the covenant spoken between God and Noah—on behalf of the entire world and every living thing—didn’t exist. For as long as humans have been telling and sharing stories and eras before history could be recorded in writing, God promised never to come after wickedness and evil by washing out humanity unto death. Rather, from this moment on, when God comes after wickedness and evil, when God attends to human kingdoms and structures bent on destruction, and when God seeks us to mend us and heal our hearts, God will do so through God’s self. God will wash the earth and humanity and all creation through God’s love, God’s life, and God’s light. God will do so not by remaining remote but by coming near and intimately identifying with human suffering and weakness and frailty. God will take death into God’s own body and destroy it.

Conclusion

And the rainbow arcs across the sky forever carrying with it the reminder that the earth is not abandoned and won’t be abandoned.[6] The arch of colors scientifically explained, does not lose its mystery and absurdity.[7] While we know how rainbows happen, we don’t know why they need to happen. The world could exist just fine without them, but with our atmosphere and our sun we get to have rainbows. And in that mystery and absurdity we are pulled up out of ourselves as our gaze moves from our navel to that which is above. We are reminded that there is something beyond us, something outside of us, something we didn’t cause and didn’t create. It lies outside of our abilities and talents and paints the sky in beauty whether we’ve been good or bad. And, for those of us who travel this earth tracking with the Hebrew and Christian narratives, it’s a sign of comfort attached to the words of promise from God to Noah and all creation.[8] The rainbow is something tangible, reminding us: life wins, love wins, light wins.

The story of the flood reminds us that Love is triumphant as Life and Light revolt against death and darkness; and so, the story of the flood is foundational story of baptism. Death and darkness precede life and light. It is being submerged into the waters of baptism where we die and receive new life.[9] Baptism is the sign of divine encounter attached to the words of promise delivered to the world through the incarnate Christ. As Christ is raised from death, so too will we be as baptism is “joined with the promise of life.”[10] In the midst of the waters of earth of our baptism, the rainbow arch of the waters of the sky remind us God isn’t absent but present, not silent but beckoning us out and into new hope, new presence, and new life.

As we travel through the season of Lent and self-reckoning in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are dropped to the bottom of the pit and swept up in the waves of water. The story of the flood reminds us that to this pit and these waters, God will not abandon us. To answer one of the questions of Psalm 88, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” (v 10a), the flood story answers with a resounding yes. And that yes is declared in the sky in manifold color of divine glory: death has not the final answer, life does.[11]


[1] This is a story. A story historicizing a natural disaster that demolished the livelihood of civilization in the “cradle of society” in the fertile crescent (which was prone to floods, and big ones). Was the entire earth covered by one flood? Most likely not. Was this local world swept up in waves of water? Most likely. The story of Noah and the arc isn’t all that unique; we find significant overlap with flood and boat story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When humans experience a massive natural disaster, we try to make sense of it and at times we ascribe divine activity to it because somehow such a thing brings comfort to us: this wasn’t chaotic but controlled. There’s also a need to explain why some were washed away and others weren’t. When the planes hit the twin towers, I was in midtown. A few months earlier in 2001 I was working downtown; that path train trapped under the collapsed building? That was my normal path train. Because of an event that happened earlier in the year, I was not on that train. From here and coupled with survivor’s guilt and the absurdity of surviving, we craft stories. We can’t handle surviving things that others haven’t so we are prone to ascribe divine activity because it’s the only way to make sense of some seemingly so chaotic. So, we craft story and legend and pass them on as beautiful markers of our humanity. If you examine your own journey, you’ll similar instances of this behavior. For a similar story from the Utes, see the legend: “Rabbit Killed the Sun” which is a legend with significant imagery that seems to be speaking of (both) the solar eclipse that preceded the Clovis comet and the comet itself that hit the earth and decimated an entire people group.

[2] JPS Study Bible “Genesis” annotations by Jon D. Levenson. Eds Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler New York, NY: OUP 1999.

[3] JPS Study Bible Levenson

[4] Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 6-14. Luther’s Works vol 2 Ed Jaroslav Pelikan 144. Promise is not only for those people and those lives of that context and generation but for all generations “until the end of the world.”

[5] Luther Genesis 143-4 “Moreover, because the covenant of which this passage is speaking of involves not only mankind but every living soul, it must be understood, not of the promise of the Seed but of this physical life, which even the dumb animals enjoy in common with us: this God does not intend to destroy in the future by a flood.”

[6] Luther Genesis 146-7 “…this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both [humanity] and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time.”

[7] Luther Genesis 146 Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.” Natural phenomenon with a divine application “…because of the Word of God, not because of some natural cause, the bow in the clouds has the meaning that no further flood will occur.”

[8] Luther Genesis 144-5 “There was need for them to have a sign of life, from which they could learn God’s blessing and good will. For this is the particular nature of signs, that they dispense comfort, not terror. To this end also the sign of the bow was established and added to the promise.”

[9] Luther Genesis 153 “…Baptism and death are interchangeable terms in the Scripture. Therefore Paul says in Rom. 6:3: ‘As many of us has have been baptized, have been baptized into the death of Christ.’ Likewise, Christ says in Luke 12:50: ‘I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!’ And to His disciples He said (Mark 10:39): ‘You will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.’”

[10] Luther Genesis 153

[11] Luther Genesis 154-5 “This must be applied also to other trials. We must learn to disdain dangers and to have hope even when no hope appears to be left, so that when death or any other danger befalls us, we may encourage ourselves and say: ‘Behold, here is your Red Sea, your Flood, your baptism, and your death. Here your life…is barely a handbreadth away from death. But do not be afraid. This danger is like a handful of water, whereas through the Word you have a flood of grace. Therefore death will not destroy you but will be a thrust and aid toward life.’”

and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5