Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days in the Church’s calendar year. I still have ashes on my thumb. No matter where I went on Ash Wednesday people stopped and asked me, “Father, do you have any ashes on you?” At 7-11, at Stop and Shop, the bank, the gas station. Everyone wanted their ashes. One year I had a line in a Pizza Restaurant and then went to the cooks in the kitchen. I guess people think the priest carries extra ashes around in his back pocket. But it is a wonderful day when we all want to make changes and come closer to God.
We have just been marked with ashes to begin this Lenten journey. When God created the first man, Adam, He created him out of the very same dust and ash. God took ordinary dust and divinized it. God made ordinary dust holy! God breathed life into the dust and made Adam. And without God, we would be nothing but dust and ash. “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
On this First Sunday of Lent we are given the story of Jesus’ flight into the desert where He is tempted by the Devil. In the longer version by St. Matthew we are given 3 temptations from the cross. The last thing Satan wants Jesus to do is to go to the cross. Why? Because Satan knows that the cross is his undoing. It is the Holy Cross that will destroy Satan. This is the method God will use to overthrow Satan. For this reason, Satan tries to tempt Jesus away from the cross in any way possible.
In St. Matthew’s version of the temptation Jesus is tempted 3 times: Hunger, Spectacle and Power. Each of the 3 temptations is prefaced by a single word: “If.” “If you are the Son of God, command these stones become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, jump from the top of the temple.” “If you are the Son of God, bow down and worship me.” Satan is not sure who this is that is before Him. Finally, we are told that Satan departs, having failed to succeed in tempting Jesus from the cross. However, the gospel ends with a chilling statement: “Satan departs–for a while….” Satan will return one final time to tempt Jesus. But when?
Years later we fast-forward to the cross where we find Jesus near death. In the crowd spread out before Him in the fog of dust and dirt we hear a single voice cry out: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross.” With that single two-letter word “If,” in that instant, Jesus knew Satan was out there in that crowd. One last futile effort by the prince of lies to get Jesus off the cross.
It is said that Jesus did not save the world through His sermons, through His words, or even through His miracles, but only through His Cross. Christ was never more salvific, never more powerful, than when nailed to the cross. It is the cross, and only the cross that saves us. This is what Satan feared, and in which we hope.
– Fr. Gerard Gordon