As Lent got underway in this year of 2011, the rite of ashes seemed somehow more appropriate than usual. After two weeks of heightened expectation and hope in Libya, the egomaniacal Colonel Qaddafi announced, “I am Libya”—an omen that the country itself would share the fate of his vaunted selfhood. The murderous counter-offensive of his forces has since moved inexorably to silence the cries for freedom and justice as the mighty of the world looked on in helpless confusion.
By week’s end, we experienced a greater helplessness yet. An earthquake shifted the planet’s axis and tottered Tokyo’s skyscrapers. Its tsunami churned homes and automobiles like matchsticks. And the world wondered whether the thousands of lives lost to the raging waters would be surpassed by a nuclear catastrophe.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” The ashes on our foreheads reminded us of our creaturely condition. The experience of human iniquity and untrammeled nature embedded the fact in our brains. There are inescapable limits to our control of nature and of our very kind. Can we accept that fact?
Adam and Eve could not. That is why their story haunts every Lent. The fall in the first garden would have to be corrected by the rise from the second garden, Gethsemane, and the cross of Golgotha.
Over the ages, much has been written about the original sin. Amid all the variations played on this theme, one abiding motif recurs: they wanted to eat of the tree of limits, of the “knowledge of good and evil.” They did not want to obey the one command: do not go there. Their limitedness ate at them. They had some control; they could name the kinds and elements; but they did not have unlimited control. Godly, they were not God.
So it is with all of us. We humans have always had problems with limits on our control: of nature, of others, of evil, of our very humanity.
The aspiration to control all of human evil is patent enough: it is the history of our wars among families or nations. Might, we think, will make right. And our victories as well as our defeats are dust—ashes of men and women and cinders of cities from Troy to Dresden and Nagasaki.
More complex is our desire to control nature itself. We have harnessed seasons and soil, navigated oceans and escaped, at least for short periods of time, our very planet. And this is good. What is not good is our yen to have no limits on our control of nature. Every act of colonization has its colonized, whether peoples or plots of land. When we want no limits on our control, we enslave peoples and devastate the earth.
Our recent aspirations have targeted the atom, human reproduction and the human genome. The returns are not yet in. Atomic energy may destroy us as well as the earth. By our reproductive techniques we may render our very sexuality useless. And by our control of the genome we may eliminate our major problem: ourselves.
This is the reason for the counter-narrative of Lent, the return to and reversal of the “Garden.” The story of the life and death of Jesus is not an instruction booklet on the renunciation of power or even control. But it is a repudiation of our false dreams of control without limits or power without constraint.
The authentic power that Jesus offers is none other than the power of love, but such power does not and cannot control the beloved. It is a yes to the truth of the human condition.
That is why God did not magically change what we are. God became what we are in Jesus and thereby revealed to us the only way we can deal with our radical contingency: embrace it.
Indeed, God has entrusted this fragile but awesome universe to us. And with the high gifts of heart and mind that mark our nature, we work. But in the end, if we accept our limits, especially when daunted by the mystery of human iniquity and the fragility of life, we can only entrust it all to God.
Having entered the narrative of Lent, maybe by the time we reach its end, we can pray with the one we call the Way and Truth, “Into your hands....”
We commend, yes, our spirits. But, more courageously, we entrust our loved ones, our nation, our hopes and our very world.