Who knew finding an Ash Wednesday service could be so complicated?
And wing my words that they may reach the hidden depths of many a heart
Who knew finding an Ash Wednesday service could be so complicated?
Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, which begins the season of Lent. I have collected my past materials on Lent into a list on Medium. Free links are below.
Ash Wednesday and God Becoming Human
Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus
Lent Series: Temptations in the Wilderness
It might surprise you to know that not all parts of the Bible are theologically correct. For example, most people consider God omniscient, meaning God knows everything. I’ve even heard an atheist say, “If God existed, then he would know everything.” Omniscience, along with omnipotence and omnipresence, are three of the main attributes that make God God—at least in most traditions. So why would God say something like this?
I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.(Gen 18:21)
What do you mean you will know? Aren’t you God?
In this scene, God is speaking to Abraham to discuss plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard people cry against the rampant injustice and violence there but apparently needed to come down to visit there and see if it was as bad as God heard. How can God talk as if God doesn’t already know? It might not make sense logically, but I think there could be a reason for this.
First, let’s start with what it means to know something. The word for “know” in Hebrew is yada`. It has many different nuances, like “know” in English.
God knows there is injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, but that knowledge seems to be intellectual at this point. But before executing an extreme judgement, maybe God wants to know through experience if it is as bad as God has heard. As Abraham said to God a few verses later,
“Far be it from you … to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”(Gen 18:26)
So God suspends judgement until God knows in the truest sense that they deserve it. That speaks to God’s justice. If God does not rush to judgement before gathering the facts, then neither should we. Just a thought.
But doesn’t God already know the facts? Yes, but as I already pointed out, there is a difference between knowing things intellectually and through experience. We see here God’s desire to know our pain through experience, which in a way foreshadows Jesus.
I think one of the most important purposes of the Incarnation was for God to experience what it is like to be human, in all of our frailty, suffering, and limitations. God may have known intellectually the pain and struggles of being human. But through Jesus, God experienced it.
This could be why Jesus did not give in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread or throw himself off of a pinnacle and trust that the angels would catch him. If he went around magically turning stones into bread whenever he was hungry, he would not experience what it is like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread. If he invoked supernatural protection from harm, he would not experience the limitations and fears that come with mortality. When it came time for him to die, he did so in the most torturous way possible, scourging followed by crucifixion. As a result, he knows what pain and suffering are, not just in some abstract sense. He knows because he experienced it. Therefore, the author of Hebrews was able to say in Jesus,
… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.(Heb 4:15)
The role of high priest was important in the Old Testament. The high priest lived in the Temple complex and never left it. He was shielded to a great degree from human weakness, especially death and anything that symbolized death. Even looking at a corpse could disqualify him from performing his duties, so the other priests and the people had to assist in keeping him pure. This was necessary, so he could perform the sacrifices that would atone for the sins of the people. However, there was a lot there was a lot about being human, i.e., death, loss, and brokenness, that he just could not sympathize with because he could never get close enough to see the pain and suffering ordinary people had to endure.
After the Temple was destroyed, the high priest could no longer atone for people’s sins. Some Jews at the time believed there was no point in praying. Without the Temple and the sacrifices, they thought they had no more access to God. Imagine what it would have meant to them if they heard and believed, along with Christians, that Jesus has been given the mantle of high priest.
The Temple on earth is gone, but the Temple in heaven endures forever. Jesus serves there forever as high priest, and he is our access to God. And unlike the high priests of old, he was tested in every respect as we are. He did not hide from any of the pain of being human and mortal but experienced it himself. Therefore, he is able to sympathize with us in a way none of the prior high priests could. Furthermore, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, because he did it all without sin. His purity before God does not depend on us or anyone shielding him from death. He experienced death and conquered it through his resurrection.
Here is a story I heard in church that I think really drives this point home, a sort of parable. One day, people of earth got angry with God and decided to put God on trial. They felt God had made life too harsh, and the reason God was not doing more to make things better was God lived up in heaven in his ivory tower with streets of gold, where there was no pain, hunger, greed, or suffering. What did God know about life on this earth?
It was time God experienced what it was like to live as humans in this world God created. Let him be born into a poor working family without the privilege of being God. Let the legitimacy of his birth be questioned. Let him experience hunger, thirst, cold, pain, exhaustion, fear, and suffering. Let him know what it is to mourn close friends and family. Let him be tempted with wealth and power as a mortal and see if he can refuse it. Let him come under the scrutiny of powers greater than him. Let him live under threat to life and limb. Let them capture him, torture him, and kill him in the most excruciating way possible for crimes he did not commit. And when that moment comes, let him die alone and forsaken, with crowds mocking and humiliating him, and abandoned by even his family and closest friends.
Then Jesus entered the courtroom and stood before his accusers. He showed them the scars on his hands and feet, the stripes on his back where he had been scourged, and the scars on his forehead from the crown of thorns he had received. One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, they left the courtroom.
“Where are your accusers?” the judge asked.
“They have left.”
Ash Wednesday is here, which means we are in the season of Lent. This particular season has become more meaningful over the years, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I know we end with Easter, which is the most important holiday for Christians. But this Lent I suggest you not skip over the hard stuff Lent calls us to remember: our vulnerability, our sinfulness, and our mortality. What does it mean that Jesus knows what you’re going through in life right now? Again, I don’t mean he knows because he’s God. He knows because he experienced it: hunger, thirst, cold, loneliness, despair, pain, and suffering. And he is present now to walk through it with you.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.
“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Grace and peace to you.