Paradox permeates the Christian faith. God is vaster and more mysterious than the universe but as near to us as our own breath. God is higher and holier than we can conceive, but also more loving and compassionate than we can imagine. God is unity and community, one and three. Creation comes from chaos. Human beings are made from the dust of the ground and the breath of God’s own life, animal and angel. Slaves become God’s chosen people; God makes a way out of no way. The King of Kings and Lord of lords was born into history as a helpless baby to peasant parents, who were homeless on the night of his birth. The light shines in the darkness.
Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and spoke in richly paradoxical ways about what it means to live in harmony with God’s will and way: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them but those who lose their lives in Jesus will find them.” “Those who would be great must be servants of all.” He was God in the flesh, a suffering God, who agonized his way into glory and bled his way into resurrected and indestructible life.
We have eternity in our hearts and get bogged down by the details of everyday life. We are free but responsible. We have the capacity to do great good but also severe harm. We are born and die alone, one by one, but we were made for love, belonging, and community.
And the church is a paradoxical community: a fellowship of forgiven sinners or sinning saints–wheat and weeds growing side by side in the same soil and soul. We hold the treasure in earthen vessels. The church can put us in touch with healing, but is itself wounded; the church can point us to wholeness but is itself broken; the church can show us grace but is itself sinful.
So, for me, part of the challenge of being a follower of Jesus has been, and is, to live stretched between the poles of paradox, with creative tension, under what Thomas Merton once called a “sign of contradiction.” I closely identify with the man who begged Jesus to heal his loved one, and confessed that his faith was mixed with doubt: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
We look beyond the visible to the invisible, through the temporary to the eternal, and past the nothing to everything. We hear the first notes of the Hallelujah Chorus in the stark silence left after the last notes of “Were You there When they Crucified My Lord?” We feel the rising up of life and light where death and darkness fell.
And, on Ash Wednesday, we feel ashes traced on our heads in the sign of the cross; we hear a voice say: from dust you were made to dust you return; we confess our sins. And, rather than making us feel empty, and sad, these reminders of our mortality fill us with hope, because here is the paradox: God gives us everything for our nothing. We return to the dust, but God reaches into the dust, the dirt, the grave, to raise us to new life. And gives us grace for our guilt, healing, for our shame, and joy for our sorrow. Everything for our nothing.