Meditation on Ash Wednesday

According to Jesus, Ash Wednesday must be the happiest day of the year.

Why? Because on Ash Wednesday we remember our own impending death, our mortality, our utter and final lack of power.

But how can this make us happy? Because the truth, as Jesus says, will set you free.

If death were the only truth of life, that would not be very freeing except, I supposed, to those who would like to live with abandon.

But Jesus says that recognizing our utter helplessness is the road to “Blessedness” — peaceful, internal, contentedness and serenity unaffected by events around us or the circumstances of our lives.

Read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:
“…when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The Greek word translated as “blessed” connotes a peaceful and contented state of being that is unaffected by surrounding circumstances. There is an island in the Mediterranean — Cyprus, I think — whose nickname is “The Blessed Isle.” The reason is that the soil is so rich, the fruit so delicious, the produce so bountiful, that to those who live on this island do not need any outside thing for contentment. That is the “blessedness” that Jesus is talking about: not needing any outside thing for peace and contentment.

The other word that deserves mention is “poor.” There are two Greek words for poor. One means poor as in a day laborer who earns enough to live that day. He isn’t able to save anything. The other word for poor refers to a person who is crouched down and begging. In this poor, not only does a person not own anything, he lacks the ability to earn anything.

So, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” If I may paraphrase: “Deeply contented are those who are beggars in spirit, who recognize not that they have work to do but that they can do no work.”

In the original language, there is no verb in the first clause. When we say “Blessed are…” it sounds like a statement of fact. This phrase is actually an exclamation. Not simply “blessed are,” but “Oh, how blessed!”

Oh, how deeply, internally, unshakably contented and peaceful are those who see their utter helplessness before God.

How do you get there? How do you get that peace?

An honest read through the Sermon on the Mount will put you on the right road.

Be warned: The road to blessedness is poverty of spirit and it is not necessarily pleasant. It is generally not fun. But it is the right road And at the end of the road is blessedness, joy and peace that cannot be taken away.

Let me give you a few excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Unless your righteousness exceeds the the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of God.”

“Whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of judgment”

“Whoever says, “You fool!” will be in danger of hell fire.”

“Whoever looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery in his or her heart”

“Anyone who divorces except for causes of marital unfaithfulness commits adultery”

“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who use you and persecute you. If you only love those who love you, what big deal is that. Everyone does that.”

“You will be judged with the same judgment you use on others.”

“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

How are you feeling now? If you took the scriptures I was reading seriously, my guess is that you are not feeling so great. Rather like your stuck. Like it’s impossible. Like you can’t live up to the expectations.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to ‘poor in spirit.’ Welcome to blessedness. You are at the door to the kingdom of God.

This place is not the kingdom of God by nature. The Bible says that Satan is the prince of this world. The wages of sin is death. We are by nature objects of wrath. Poverty of spirit without God is blind resignation to the forces of the universe.

But with God, things are different. Ash Wednesday is “poverty of spirit” day. Ash Wednesday is “beggar day.” We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our poverty, to remind us that in the grand scheme we are crouching beggars every one of us. That person you dislike, those people on the other side of the fence from you, the one you despise whose presence you can barely stand — every one a beggar and equal before God. You walk together as beggars in rags.
The people who should ‘get it straight,’ yhe ones above you, the ones below, the people far above you, the people far beneath you — every one a beggar and equal before God. You walk together as beggars in rags.

Oh the blessedness when we recognize that we all walk together as beggars in rags. Because in the grand scheme in all of God’s economy, in the deepest part of our spirits, beggars receive what workers cannot earn.

The ashes on our forehead remind us of our poverty. The shape of the cross on our forehead reminds us of God’s gift. The Bible tells us that Jesus was God’s Son and that he came to die. Jesus’ death makes things right with God. He took the punishment for our sin upon himself. Our sins are no longer counted against us. We are adopted as sons and daughters into God’s own family. This is the gift given to beggars but not available to workers because the price is too high.

What price for a life? What price would you name for the life of one of your loved ones? How could someone pay you for the life of a son or daughter, a father, a mother, a close friend? How many years of work? How much money? How much time?

The idea of putting a price on the life of a loved one is ridiculous.

I believe that God thinks that too.

When we refuse to be “poor in spirit,” when we refuse to be “beggars,” when we refuse to see that we are all beggars in rags, we are asking God what the price for the life of his son is. How much, God, until I am freed from my obligation? How much love until I don’t have to love any more? How much forgiveness until I don’t have to forgive any more?

These are not the words of a beggar receiving a gift. The words of a beggar are “thank you”

As we see the ashes, let us remember that we are beggars all — to the left, to the right, across this country, around the world, we are beggars all. And in God’s economy, beggars receive what workers cannot earn: Forgiveness from God. Adoption into God’s family. Serenity. Peace. Joy in the midst of sorrow.

Oh, how blessed the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven!