Whenever I preach on Ash Wednesday, I like to highlight the apparent incongruity built into the service, in which we hear Jesus tell us, “Whenever you’re being pious, don’t make a show of it” and then we proceed to put ashes on our foreheads thus making a show of our piety, whether that is our intention or not. I like to highlight this as well as other incongruities and occasions in which we seem to not only fail in obeying Jesus but our disobedience to Jesus, in some cases, is built into the very way we do church. For example, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, we heard Jesus say, “Do not make vows” (Matt 5:34) and then we proceed to make very important vows at our baptism and at marriage. These vows are central to the sacraments. Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’” (Matt 23:9), and then we proceed to address not only our earthly fathers but also some clergy often as “Father,” including myself. Now I’m not at all opposed to any of this: I’m not opposed to calling someone “Father” or being called “Father;” I’m definitely not opposed to our baptismal vows or marriage vows and certainly not opposed to the imposition of ashes, but there is clearly a tension here. Jesus teaches us not to do something and, when we gather as his body on earth, in some cases, we do that very thing.
Also, several weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) and today, in the same sermon, Jesus basically says, “Don’t do your good deeds before others in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1). Which one is it, Jesus? Make up your mind. We see incongruities not only between Jesus’s teachings and the way we do church, but we see them within Jesus’s teachings themselves, indeed within the very same sermon! So how do we approach this?
Apparent incongruities in Scripture are not simply mistakes or mere contradictions, but rather invitations into the deep, paradoxical mysteries of God. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he doesn’t shirk at all from the paradoxes that have come to mark his life and ministry. He is very honest and upfront about them when he says, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Lent is a season of prayerful and penitential preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection. And it is a long liminal space between Epiphany and Easter, that invites us to sit with the incongruities and allow them to open us up to receive the divine mysteries lurking underneath, and to appreciate the paradoxical mysteries that are all around us: We are dust, but we are dust that breathes the breath of God. We are mortals, but we have eternity in our hearts. And tonight we mark ourselves with the cross, the great coincidence of opposites, the symbol that represents the simultaneous glorification and humiliation of the One who was both God and man. There is a plethora of these paradoxes.
This year, as I have had the opportunity to study and read deeply with you all the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that precedes the Ash Wednesday reading, I have come to see a particularly profound mystery and paradox that flows through the currents of the whole Sermon on the Mount and might even be the heart of the entire sermon, which I have come to understand and refer to as the Teachings of a Jewish Mystic.
And I see this Jewish Mystic, who is also my Lord, conveying this paradoxical mystery or mysterious paradox especially in his teachings tonight. And it is this: If we seek to become God, we will inevitably bump up hard against our human limitations and fall headlong into sin (which is deep disconnection from ourselves and from everyone around us). But if we relax into our humanity and lean lovingly into the divine source of our every breath, we will find ourselves growing into divinity.
In other words, if we seek to become God over and against the one true God, I’m sorry to say we’re not going to make it. He’s going to win. We will end up strangling ourselves with our own spiritual arrogance, which, according to C. S. Lewis, is the sin that made the devil become the devil. (Ego-centric arrogance and seeking to become God over and against God).
But, if we seek to partner with God, fully aware of our human limitations and of our absolute need for God, who graciously provides with the gift of every single breath we breathe, then we begin a journey that leads to such profound union with God that we begin participating in divinity ourselves. The ancient Christian theologians called this process “theosis” or “deification.” And St. Athanasius, who is known as the Father of Orthodoxy, sums up the entire Gospel when he said, “God became human so that humans can become God.”
So there are two ways of saying, “I am God.” One is an expression of the utmost arrogance, on par with the devil’s arrogance. And the other is an expression of the utmost humility. One is an expression of competition with God while the other is an expression of a human who realizes that she is dust in whom God has breathed life and who seeks to merge and partner with the divine source of every breath. Paradoxically, it is by acknowledging our humanity that we can participate in divinity. As another ancient Christian theologian Irenaeus put it: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expects us to give, pray and fast in order to recognize our utter dependence on God for every single breath we take, for every bite of bread we consume, for every single penny we receive. Ironically, this is how we store up treasures for ourselves in heaven by becoming fully alive as humans, as God-breathed dust. This Lent, I invite us to seek and participate in the glory of God by becoming more fully alive, by relaxing into our humanity and abandoning ourselves completely to what Dante called “the love that moves the sun and the other stars” and to merge in love with the divine source of our every breath. Amen.