Let’s begin with two generals and a monk.
The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.
Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”
For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.
For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.
Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.
This is a very countercultural act.
We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.
We see this in our language, too. Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it. We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.
For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.
There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God. The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.
We cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God. We are not immortal. We do not hold life and death in our hands.
Thankfully, we know the One who does.
The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death. We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.
And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.
Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood. Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose. Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.
Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:
We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander
we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.
This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.
Let’s close with a prayer:
God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.
-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)