I think it would probably be no surprise to you that I love video games. My first video game system was the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and I played that Nintendo quite a bit. I played countless titles but one game was set apart from the rest of the pack; Super Mario Brothers and it was and still is amazing. The game includes: power-up mushrooms, fire flowers, bullet bills, star power, koopas, terrible water levels with those fish that chase you around, and the capacity to explore and look for secrets. The game was amazing and I put a lot of time into it; so much time, in fact, that I could (and still can) speed run levels. One of the things that I loved most about playing Super Mario Bros. was the sense of wonder that I got from searching for secrets and exploring the level; finding warp zones and secret 1-up mushrooms. The sense of wonder was reinforced by the iconic tune you hear as soon as the game begins in world 1-1.
I bet you could even hum the opening world’s (world 1-1) music even if you haven’t played the game in a very long time as it has become one of the most iconic scores in video game history. The opening track is an upbeat tune of beeps and boops that makes you want to meander through the hills of the Mushroom Kingdom until, of course, your time dips below 100 and the tempo shifts to a frantic pace that propels you to finish the level. The frantic music pushes you to prioritize things, finish the level, and do what you need to do. The music shift when time dips below 100 reminds the player that time in Super Mario Brothers is finite and you, the player, have a job to do. Ashes on our head remind us that our time is finite and we have a job to do.
There is often a sense of dread to Ash Wednesday in the life of the church. It’s certainly the only context outside of a funeral during which you’re reminded that “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Heavy stuff. The morbid nature of the day can be exacerbated by the bleak outlook that we get when we hop online, look at the news, scroll through Twitter. Bad. Worse. Yikes. Does Ash Wednesday add insult to injury in our current socio-political climate? Perhaps instead of thinking of AshWednesday through a lens of gloom, it may be helpful to see it through the lens of MarioBrothers.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten Journey as we spend 40 days in deep contemplation, prayer, and repentance; seeking to deepen our relationship with God and refocus our faith journey to be agents of God’s will in the world. Lent is based on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wildernessbefore his ministry began. We don’t know very much about Jesus before his baptism and temptation. The majority of the Gospel’s account of Jesus’ life begins with his baptism, marking the beginning of his ministry. The Synoptic Gospels then account for Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; a time during which Jesus prayed, fasted, and refocused his life before setting off to live and die so that we all might live. The Lenten season is based on these 40 days of fasting, contemplation, and repentance that Jesus modeled before his ministry began. I’ve often wondered what Jesus was thinking about during his 40 days of contemplation and repentance and what it means for us. As I think of these things, I often land, again, and again at the music from Super Mario Bros.
The Mount of Temptation, where many in the Christian tradition believe
Jesus was tempted during his 40 days in the wilderness.
I imagine everything in Jesus’ life up to the point of his baptism to be like playing through world 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., sort of meandering through his life in Nazareth, smelling the flowers, squashing goombas. No, not squashing goombas, but just hanging around. That is until, of course, his baptism. Jesus is dunked, a dove descends, God becomes a proud Pop, and, for me the tempo of the music of Jesus’ life shifts to the sub-100 music of Super Mario Bros.
I equate his time in the wilderness to Jesus pressing the pause button and reflecting upon this new shift in tempo of the musicof his life; music that is now propelling him toward his ministry and death. Jesus, in my nerdy mind, reflects on the finitude of his time on earth and refocuses himself on the beautiful, scary, and amazing work to be done.
That’s what the ashes that mark the beginning of our Lenten journey can be for us. In spite of the ways in which advertisements and anti-aging serums try to convince us that we are ageless; we are not. We are finiteand we have a job to do. Ash Wednesday reminds us that the tempo of the music of our lives can change to the frantic, propelling pace of a sub-100 second Mario Brothers game at any time and we need to stop acting like we have all the time in the world to be agents of God’s will. Ashes convict us to not put off forgiveness for another day, wait for a better time to speak out for God’s justice in our world, a better day to see our self-worth, remain in contentment with a life apart from a faith community of support, or remain as wallflowers who simply see the ways in which God’s love can be made known and choose to remain idle. Ashes, for us, are the music shift in Super Mario Bros. that remind us both of our finitude and the work to be done.
This Ash Wednesday, may you be reminded of the truth of the Pilgrim’s Prayer, “Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us. So, be swift to love, make haste to be kind and go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” May the ashes on your head be for you a tempo shift in the music of your life that propels you to not wait for a better time to deepen your relationship with God, speak for justice, or find the balm of forgiveness for your soul. Our clock is always ticking and there is much work to be done. Amen.
 Matthew and Luke contain infancy narratives (Matthew 1:18-2:23 & Luke 2:1-40) and an interesting account of the 12-year-old Jesus in Luke 2:41-52.