Februrary 22, 2012 marks a very important day to many people. It is a day when people turn their eyes to something in the past which defined a people and forever encapsulated victory in the hearts of those who witnessed it and those who tell the story. What event? The Miracle on Ice. What did you think I was talking about?
32 years ago a group of scrappy college kids, who began their journey as enemies, finished it as brothers and in doing so defeated the greatest hockey team in the world. Gold Medalists in 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, and later on 1984 and 1988, the Soviet Union were by far the greatest hockey team of that era. On only two occasions had they not acieved Olympic God, with America claiming gold in 1960 and 1980. To say that the US team was an underdog that afternoon in Lake Placid would an understatement. Yet they overcame the odds and took down that big bad Soviet bear. For some the game was about national pride, for others, it was a hockey game played out on the greatest stage in the world. Yet, no matter who witnessed it or told the story, this moment helped to restore hope to a nation. It is remembered as one of the few moments, like those in the national consciousness, that people can recall with accuracy where they were when it happened. And while this moment may not mean much to some, for other it is one of the greatest sports moments in American history.
So why bring it up other than the fact that I am a nerd about this kind of thing and proudly own a replica sweater of that 1980 US Men’s Hockey Team? I mean, I didn’t witness it. The closest thing I can come to that is a condensed version of the game ESPN classic put out. I also didn’t know anyone who participated it, though I do know a Mark Johnson and can’t help but think of number 10 whenever I hear that name. I bring it up because in recounting events of the past I become a part of the story, not as a central actor in it, but in one of the many who pass it on.
Wednesday nights during my senior year of college were spent at a local bar because it was the one night of the week they had Rockband/Guitar Hero just like bars have karaoke. A group of us, who spent way to much time playing that game in our dorms, would take to the “instruments” and play our hearts out on expert, and much fun was had by all. Not just us mind you, people in the bar. Just like karaoke provides entertainment, so does kids playing a video game. One of these fabled Wednesdays saw a young man capture the attention of everyone in the bar. The song, Through Fire and Flames by Dragonforce is easily one of, if not the toughest songs to play in the collection at that time. Yet play it he did, and all eyes in that bar turned to him and cheered wildly as he did what others could only dream of doing, beating that difficult song. When the song ended, he walked up to the bar and took a free shot, sat back down, and barely said another word. That kid playing guitar hero in a bar was Matt Nix. Retelling stories, whether they are about one of the greatest moments in US Hockey history or a kid playing guitar hero in a bar, connect the hearers to the event and in doing so invites them to participate in that event anew.
Over the past year/few months I have been reconnecting with the roots of Lutheranism, rediscovering the beautiful depth and breadth of her theology and practice, and embracing again her paradoxical spirituality. What do I mean by that? That the Word of God, which is the Bible but not only the Bible, has the power to communicate in a tangible way, the grace of Christ on a cross. That the waters of Baptism save, as within them we are buried with Christ and rise with Him in his resurrection. That in the bread and wine we receive the body and blood of Christ and we taste His forgiveness. These things, known to us as word and sacrament, define our lives because we recognize them as the places where God comes to us, not because we determined them to do that, but because God promised to be there among the common elements of language, water, bread and wine. And these things, rather than acting in a magical way despite my disposition, force me to continually be confronted with my brokenness and inability to be the person I should and do not simply point me to the place to find restoration, actually restore me. In them God pronounces upon me the forgiveness of the Cross, even when i don’t feel it, understand it, or live it out. They act outside of myself, and bring to me something I can be sure of. Why? Because God promised to be there, and He is trustworthy.
But why bring this up in light of the other stories? Because Wednesday February 22, 2012 marks another date, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This season is one that pushes the church to remember the march to the cross and reminds her of her need to continually turn from herself to Christ, the one in whose footsteps we walk, in whose cross we are forgiven, and in whose resurrection we are made alive. The time of Lent, the story it tells, is one that invites us to participation. Not simply to gain an understanding, learn how to live rightly, or engage in a mystical act which brings us closer to God, but to journey with Christ to His cross and through his tomb. In short, it is just like every other day, only it isn’t.
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday begins with people hearing words that are more than a little unnerving. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” As these words are spoken, the sign of the cross is made upon a persons forehead using ashes from last years palm branches. It begins with an invitation to embrace your frailty, your inability to cheat that which is common to all mankind, death. But this embrace is not one that leaves you empty, at least not indefinitely. That part of the story is held back until that day we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Easter. Only for now, we wait, faced with our own mortality, reminded of our utter brokenness. It is the brokenness that now separates us from the coach of those college kids and that kid who played Guitar Hero.
Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Death confronts us all, and make no mistake, it is our enemy. But when death comes knocking, we need not be afraid. For in Baptism, we have died already, and having died with Christ, we will rise again with Him. A resurrection of the body. And while the story of lent is going to push and stretch in ways unimaginable, while the story of life is going to be filled with trouble and suffering, while the inevitability of death will lurk around us until it greets us, we need not fear. The journey doesn’t end in a closed casket, the door stands open. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Yet hope remains…