Now, to Lent:We are told in the Gospels that Christ is baptised by John (a mystery in itself, but one I will have to return to) and 'Then' was led into the desert to be tempted. The waters of baptism led directly to the desert of temptation as the first act of the Holy Spirit, after the descent at the Jordan. The Baptist must play a major role in how we understand the unfolding of the Gospel and the way in which we should approach our own 40 days in the desert of Lent.We know that John preached in the wilderness, lived on locusts and wild honey, and: wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather girdle around his waist (Matt 3:1-6). The terms 'wilderness' and 'desert', are, obviously English words which are used, fairly interchangeably, to translate the Hebrew word 'horbah', which, as the Jewish Encyclopedia notes: '... are inadequate and misleading. "Ḥorbah" implies violent destruction; and it is more exactly rendered by "waste places" or "desolation" :
Psalm 102:7 I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places.
Jeremiah 44:2 Thus saith HaShem of hosts, the God of Israel: Ye have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, and upon all the cities of Judah; and, behold, this day they are a desolation, and no man dwelleth therein.
The 'otherness' of the uninhabited wastes are defined starkly in Scripture - these are not just 'open spaces', as un-dynamic notions such as these could not be expressed in the Hebrew tongue, or mind - they can only be expressed in terms of the cataclysmic act(s) of becoming desolate; as 'being' horrific:
Deuteronomy 32:10 He found him in a desert land, in a place of horror and of vast wilderness
Jeremiah 51:43 Her cities have become a horror, a land of drought and of desert, a land in which no one dwells, and which no son of man passes.
The 'desert', 'wilderness' or waste-places are to be regarded in the same sense as that species of true 'nothingness' that God calls the world into existence from, and that sin is the tending back toward. It is more than just a physical wasteland: it is synonomous with the abode of evil - the place where the Jackal dwells, wild beasts, the serpent - it is a type of cosmic battleground: the domain of the ancient enemy: the utter lack and opposite of 'creation' expressed dynamically as annihilation:
Matthew 4: 1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit to be tempted of the Devil.
Mark 1:12-13 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts
As with the Hebrew conception of horbah - the wilderness - the Hebrew term for 'ashes' expresses a similar idea of annihilation/negative void. The usual translation of the Hebrew for ashes - efer - occurs often in expressions of mourning, and in other connections is a symbol of insignificance or nothingness in persons or words:
Genesis 18:27 And Abraham answered and said: 'Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes.
Isaiah 44:20 He striveth after ashes, a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say: 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?'
Job 13:12 Your memorials shall be like unto ashes, your eminences to eminences of clay.Records testify to the use of ashes as a sign of grief in Talmudic times. In the Mishnah (Ta'an. ii. 1) it is recorded that during the fast-days proclaimed in consequence of drought, the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the people participating in the procession, were sprinkled with ashes, and on such occasions as public fasts, ashes were strewn upon the holy Ark set up in a public place, and upon the heads of the people. That part of the forehead where the phylacteries were placed was selected (Ta'an. 16a). The reason given for covering oneself with ashes is either that it should serve as an expression of self-humiliation, as if to say, "We are before thee as ashes" as in Genesis 27 above, or as in Job 42:6: Wherefore I abhor my words, and repent, seeing I am dust and ashes.
Ashes, as a symbol of mourning, were (are) also sprinkled upon the bridegroom during the wedding ceremony, interestingly enough, in order to remind him, at the height of his felicity, of the destruction of Jerusalem. This custom is still observed among some of the orthodox. This reminder of Jerusalem's destruction should be related to the quote from Jeremiah 44:2 above, and connected to the horror that these ashes upon the head of the groom are to convey in the midst of his joy.
At this time, then, we should be mindful that John the Baptist called out the people of Jerusalem and all about Judea into the wilderness, where he himself was to be found, and that they: were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matt 3:6)That John was he of whom the Prophet said 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; a voice of one crying in the wilderness; make His paths straight.' (Mark 1:2-3)That John was he who acknowledged that: 'He must increase, but I must decrease' (John 3:30)As the Catechism states: By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. CCC540.
We are marked with the ashes of humility and repentance (in precisely that place, on the forehead, where the phylacteries would be placed); we confess our sins; we go out into the wilderness and desert of self-denial in order to combat temptation, and defeat the powers of desolation that would have us turn from God into an abode of wickedness and desolation. We walk before God as signs and, thus, messengers, in our secular wasteland, making His paths straight. To do this, 'I' must decrease, whilst He increases. Not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matt 26:39)
I'll leave the last word to Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI:Ash Wednesday 2010.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Church’s Lenten journey towards Easter. Lent reminds us, as Saint Paul exhorts, “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (cf. 2 Cor 6:1), but to recognize that today the Lord calls us to penance and spiritual renewal. This call to conversion is expressed in the two formulae used in the rite of the imposition of ashes. The first formula – “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” – echoes Jesus’s words at the beginning of his public ministry (cf. Mk 1:15). It reminds us that conversion is meant to be a deep and lasting abandonment of our sinful ways in order to enter into a living relationship with Christ, who alone offers true freedom, happiness and fulfilment. The second, older formula – “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return” – recalls the poverty and death which are the legacy of Adam’s sin, while pointing us to the resurrection, the new life and the freedom brought by Christ, the Second Adam. This Lent, through the practice of prayer and penance, and an ever more fruitful reception of the Church’s sacraments, may we make our way to Easter with hearts purified and renewed by the grace of this special season.