Today is Ash Wednesday, the official start of the calendar for Lent, and I know nothing about this tradition. Having relegated it to “those people” who worship “over there”, I find myself a long lost cousin three times removed at the family table. Which fork goes with what dish? I look at the family album of our common faith and marvel at the way the symbol of the ashen crosses on the foreheads of the penitent resonates in my heart. Repentance, confession and mortality are holy ground themes of personal burning bush encounters in my life, and I am strangely saddened that I had not participated with others of the ecclesia in this outward sign of an internal reality. The reading from the Gospel of John 6:32-35/47-58 rivets my heart to the page. There in the midst of a massive throng of people ready to “do the works of God” the religious “right things”, they ask The Bread of Life for a sign.
Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD FROM HEAVEN TO EAT.'” John 6: 30-31
He had just told them in the preceding statement that the only “work” of God was to believe in the ONE the Father had sent. Here they are, “those people over there” not willing to accept the simplicity of the reality of the tabernacling God. Not willing to believe that salvation could be so very simple. “Those people” who if they weren’t so blind would have known He was the answer, the life, the light, the desire of the nations, the prophets promise. “Those people” demanded that God prove himself on their behalf, ” show us a sign and then we will believe”! I scanned the crowd on the hill horrified to find myself seated in their midst chomping on a loaf of bread nodding assent to the argument. Right! Show me a sign!
How many times did I demand an outward sign of his love? How often have I been “one of those people” who failed to know him, to believe him, to trust that he was the one sent from the Father. I have often failed to do the “work” required of God. I have often refused to believe.
Jesus catches my gaze in that crowd as the syllables of his declaration of being the Manna that came from heaven, not like in the wilderness of collective memory…greater, begin to pierce my heart. I choke on the bread that seems stuck in my throat-
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. John 6:35
The crowd begins to mock, What?! How can this man be manna? How can we eat of his flesh? I think back to Communion Sunday, the way the bread and cup had felt in my hands, tasted in my mouth. ” Take eat” he would say the night before the cross, ” this is my body, broken for you…remember me.” I had held the remembrance of the greatest love a being could know, a laying down of life, in my hands. Did I savor the mystery? The Manna? Did I know the blood of the new covenant flowing in my veins? Did I walk away asking for another sign of his love? Something more tangible than symbolic? Was I one of “those people”?
The Spirit blew around my archeology gear and invited me back to the dig site with a question. “What do ashes have to do with bread?” Shovel in hand I turned the pages not surprised to find myself back in Genesis. He promises to declare the end from the beginning and here we find at the beginning of our family legacy of doubting the goodness of God the connection of bread and dust and ashes.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
The next mention comes from the man who bears the testimony of friendship with God. Daring to bargain with his friend for the lives of the lost, a groan close to the heart of the ONE who gave himself as the Bread of Life to ALL who would hunger to eat.
And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes: Genesis 18:27
Ashes. The Hebrew word is epher. I feel the moment joined with a holy presence. I hear the delighted anticipation of the ONE who is about to bestow a great gift to someone who could never repay, is undeserving, yet because of HIS great affection is found worthy. “Open it” I pause at the packaging. Knowing the moment will forever change me. This is only day four and I hardly recognize the woman who stood at the start of this journey…”Go on, Open it”.
Aleph*Pey*Resh =The strong opened head. It is a reference to grain. I begin to smile as I nod in knowing. Yes, of course it is, the beginnings of bread.
The pictograph (A,E) is strength, strong (p) is a picture of an open mouth, the (r) is a picture of a head. Combined these mean “strongly open the head”. The heads of grains are scattered on the threshing floor, a smooth, hard and level surface. An ox is led around the floor crushing the heads, opening them to reveal the seed inside. (The aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet which symbolizes God is the picture of an ox. Coincidence? I think not. This is a strong statement of who is doing this threshing all to reveal the seed!) Bread is made from the crushing of the seed. Our Bread, our Eucharist would go into Gethsemane which means…yes…the olive press….another stone wheel turned by an ox to crush the olives to produce the oil…to be crushed by the weight of our sins.
But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.-Isaiah 53:10
There the “if” of the Messiah’s willingness stands so innocent. There is no shadow of the tormenting midnight wrestle of the second if-“If it is possible take this cup” There is no hint of the greater Adam’ s sweat that would fall as blood and the words that would ring through eternity, “nevertheless, not my will….but yours be done”. There the bread of life whose name means salvation intercedes for me, for my salvation.
We see him in the pen on ink, the oil upon the canvas laboring in the travail of his flesh, surrendering his will to the Father. But there were three companions of his heart who were invited to be eye witnesses of this fellowship of suffering, the first fruit pressing of the new covenant. Three were invited to share in this bread of friendship on the threshing floor, and they slumbered through the grinding, their hearts heavy with sorrow.
What would we have known of suffering well, had they stayed awake? “Those people” should have known better...those people….are…me! What would the world know of the love of my God, the closeness of his fellowship to the hurting, if I had stayed awake through the Father orchestrated times of threshing in my life? Surrendering my will, and trusting the goodness of my God?
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit. He that loveth his life loseth it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will the Father honor. John 12:24-26
My heart whispers in the shadows of Gethsemane…”Keep me awake, teach me how to pray, show me how to live, I am just dust and ashes, feed me with yourself, you the Manna of God, give me this bread that I might feast forever. Help me to remember you and believe. That others might see the outward sign of the inward mark of a circumcised heart broken and poured out.