There’s a scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus stoops down and writes the only thing we have any record of him ever writing.
It’s in the middle of an incredible tense moment, where the religious, self-righteous leaders of his day, drag a naked woman into the Temple grounds and announce loudly, “This woman was just caught in adultery!”
The whole scene is done for theater, the religious leaders aren’t just trying to shame her, she’s the bait and Jesus is the target. They want to see if He’s going to try and do that whole compassion thing in front of everyone when it’s obvious that there’s no room to look the other way.
And Jesus does the last thing they expect, He bends down and starts writing in the dirt.
Introduction to Lent
So this is the beginning of Lent, it’s a season that Christians have practiced for over a thousand years. For those of you who grew up like me, Lent was something that we didn’t practice because we thought it was something that Catholics did. But Lent was something that Christians were doing long before the Reformation, and it’s something that most Protestant’s kept observing.
Because they knew how much we need it.
Lent is about self-reflection, and asking ourselves the question “How do I stand before God” We spend most of our lives asking that question from other people, we ask each to rate us 1-10, or we try to get likes or favorites, but Lent starts with allowing the gaze of God to search us.
Lent starts tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, where people gather together and wipe ashes on each other’s foreheads and say something like, “From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.”
When we say this, we aren’t saying some ancient Church invention, we are quoting God. When God talks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, He tells them, “From dirt you came, and to dirt you will return.” (Adam actually is the Hebrew word for dirt)
That sounds really morbid, but only because we don’t hear it nearly as much as we need. Ash Wednesday is the one day a year that the Church remembers the one thing that’s true every day of every year.
We will surely die.
Did you ever wonder why the cosmetic surgery business is making around $20 Billion a year? Did you ever wonder why grandparents are starting to want to not be called Grandma/Pa? Or why that new grey hair bothers you so much? Or why some of our churches rarely have older people leading worship?
It’s because of this new social contract that we’ve all implicitly started to agree to, we’ve agreed to pretend to be “deathless.” We’ve agreed not to remind each other that it is from dirt we came from and to dirt that we will return.
Until that’s not an option anymore, until the stroke or the arthritis leaves us with limited mobility, or our spouse dies, and now suddenly everywhere we go our very presence is a reminder that the social contract is a lie.
Writing a Resume vs. Writing an Obituary
Ash Wednesday is when we do the exact opposite of what we do every other day, men and women look each other in the eye, and they say the most true thing they will say all year to one another, “You will die.”
And this, all of this, is a gift.
This is not to say that death is a gift, in Christian theology, Death is the last enemy to be defeated, but the awareness of death can be a gift.
Which brings me back to Jesus writing in the dirt.
Millions of sermons have been preached on this story, What did Jesus write? Why did he do it? What was the point? Why did no one record his writing?
But maybe this is the point.
Jesus is writing in dirt, God is once again picking up the dirt from which he made all of us, and he’s writes something that will ultimately not survive the day.
No one’s life stands the test of time, and time is a test.
Last week I read an article on Vulture.com about a new documentary on the 90’s boy band documentary The Backstreet Boys (didn’t see this transition coming did you?) The article had some fascinating observations about their life after fame, but this line was the one that stood out to me the most.
“As it is in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the main character (or perhaps villain) in the new documentary about the Backstreet Boys is time.”
These former legends now have bad knees, worn out vocal chords, and struggle with a life without fame after being defined for years as celebrities. The documentary shows them being introduced to 15 year old girls (their target demographic back in the 90’s) with the girls saying, “Who are the Backstreet Boys?” while one of them makes the painful observation that they weren’t born during their brief spark of fame.
All of our lives, at their best, are only writing in dirt. Time washes away even the greatest of accomplishments, and the wise among us know that this changes how we approach life and how we approach what we write.
Last year when the famous actor James Rebhorn (Homeland, White Collar) learned that he would not survive his battle with skin cancer, he had the foresight to write his own obituary. I think it was telling what he chose to write.
He wrote about the gift of life, his gratitude for his parents instilling faith and hospitality at an early age, about the pride he had in his children, and his appreciation for being able to do a job he loved. He never mentioned his fame, how much money he’d made, or the well known movies he starred in.
He wasn’t writing a resume, he was writing his obituary.
The truth is we are all writing our obituaries, day by day we are writing the lines that will one day be read over our dead body. With each decision we make we are writing our life’s story that will one day be told.
This is the truth of Ash Wednesday, we are writing our obituary with every day-planner we fill out.
We are dirt and to dirt we will return.