Let The Burning Begin

making-ashes-320 So, tomorrow is lent. Lent is a season of preparation. 40 days of preparation for the biggest event in the history of the world. The death and resurrection of Christ. The ‘passion’ of Christ which is the deepest expression of God’s mercy ever known.

The Lenten season begins in the Catholic tradition with Ash Wednesday. A billion or so Christians go to mass to get a priest to put ashes in the sign of a cross on their foreheads. The ashes are made from last years ‘palm Sunday’ branches.

Which is weird and deep.

See the palm braches are a sign of celebration. They are the crowds responses to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem when they were all shouting ‘hosanna’ or in english ‘our God saves’. It’s a moment that if you freeze in time is beautiful and perfect – a bit like a Disney flick. It’s like everything is working out perfectly for Jesus. Que the fireworks.

But if you let the story continue you’ll come to the ‘not so disney’ part which is when the same crowd that shouted hosanna started shouting ‘crucify him’ and sent Jesus to the cross. There he hung, dying – que Leonard Cohen singing ‘a broken hallelujah’ and you’ve got yourself the passion with a soundtrack.

We all wonder what happened to the crowd. Well I do. No doubt the Jewish leaders used misconception and fear to whip those poor ‘sheep’ into a frenzy to save themselves from the wrath of the Romans and all that. But how did a people so filled with hope one minute turn to such despair the next – so quickly?

It turns out that Palm braches were not just decoration for parades. This might help us figure it all out. See, Palm braches were the symbol of political freedom. Namely, a couple hundred years before the death of Jesus (less a decade or two) there was the famous Maccabean Revolt. It was a revolt where the Jews took back their country. Soon after that, Jewish coins were minted to celebrate the victory, and on those coins there are palm branches. It was a nod to the time when a revolutionary fighter and his band of brothers stood up to the occupying forces that were desecrating the Jewish Temple and oppressing God’s people. It was glorious and bloody and a display of strength and power. The Palm branches were a symbol of that kind of story.

And that’s what we all want. It’s how every great story goes. The underdog rises up and defeats the power that oppresses us and we are set free.

So the crowd shouted ‘our God saves’ and held up their palm branches not just in some spiritual worship concert but in the spirit of the Maccabees. In the spirit of revolt. For revolution. Because they wanted Jesus to be that kind of King. The kind that brings strength and power back to God’s people.  They wanted the story to be familiar. To liberate them from the Romans. To show the Romans who was boss.

So maybe the most powerful thing about the preparation for Lent is Ash Wednesday. The day we burn our human hopes and desires for strength and power to ashes. Maybe the true preparation for Lent is to burn everything that doesn’t submit to the God of compassion, that doesn’t bow to the truest and most powerful display of love the world will every know – the cross. The demonstration of true freedom from the inside out. Maybe the deepest of all temptations is the one where we win and our enemy loses – the kind of oppression that keeps us slaves on the inside. I can almost see the slow motion of Katniss Everdeen’s face as she realizes (to quote Bono) ‘we became the monster to defeat the monster’. If we wish to be free it’s inevitable for all of us to realize this, not just externally but internally as well. The only thing that wins in the end, it turns out, is love. And love’s name is Jesus.

See, the cross was not a tragedy it was a strategy. It was a strategy to display for all the world to see and experience that love is the true triumph.  That Jesus can take all the sin, pain and rejection the world can dish and absorb it into himself forever – to make a way where we can all be free. Free to love. A place where he eradicates the ‘us and them’ forever. Now there is no longer – male or female, slave or free, jew or gentile, muslim or christian, catholic or protestant, black or white, isreali or palestinian, we are all one in Christ Jesus. There is a new way to live. An eternal exodus.

To live out this truth demands a lot of burning. We should start by burning our own symbols of power and victory. We should continue to burn our hopes that ‘we win’ and then those things that we cling to for our own security at the expense of the ‘other’. I suppose the burning should continue all through life not just lent – life is preparation necessary for us to follow the way of Jesus. The way of the cross. The way of true victory – love.

Let the burning begin in me.