Last night we marked the beginning of Lent, the 40 days that parallel the 40 days when Jesus went to the desert and faced down evil. I recently visited the people who live in the desert along our US-Mexico border. In Douglas, Arizona, US and Agua Prietas, Sonora, Mexico I saw the dangerous elements of the desert. Deadly summer heat, freezing winter temperatures, xenophobic surveillance systems, human traffickers, venomous snakes, drug cartels, poverty and law enforcement armed for battle: all of these dangers stir anxiety much higher than the border fence.
The beauty of the desert was in the sky, the mountains, the migrating birds. I saws about a thousand sandhill cranes. The beauty also includes human beings saving and protecting each other from harm–and sometimes it is a most unlikely savior. As much as we might fear the average coyote who takes advantage of ordinary folks trying to cross the border fence in the desert, I heard the story of the Good Coyote–not unlike the Good Samaritan–who prays with and for his party, cares for their physical needs, protects the women from assault and doesn't force anyone to carry drug bales.
Marked with ashes at the beginning of Lent I have in mind some of the dust on the faces of the migrants I met who risk much and suffer much in order to be reunited with family members here in the North and to be free from the poverty in their home communities. I remember those who whose smiles and handshakes registered hope and confidence. I remember those whose blank faces seemed etched with trauma. I remember the stories they shared with me.
Not everyone survives the desert. I also visited several humble graves near the border fence in the public cemetery in Douglas. One grave marker read: Unidentified. Female. Found February 12, 2009. ME 09-05. I think the ME stands for medical examiner. I'm not sure. I know that the cross marking her grave stands for Jesus Christ who identifies with each of us, who went to the desert and went to the cross for the love of all humankind.
During Lent, marked with ashes God's word to us is: do not be afraid. The God who formed human creatures from the ground, the dust of the earth, came to dwell among us in human form. Jesus carried the burden of a human life and a human death. He identifies with each of us. During Lent, under the sign of the cross, God's word to us is: do not be afraid. You may be met by beauty in this season of honest repentance. Authentic human struggle is beautiful and the Holy Spirit supports and sustains us in the desert. As we enter into the 40 days of Lent, God's word to us is: do not be afraid to face down evil–within your own life, or in the world. This cross of ashes at the beginning of Lent identifies us as belonging to the earth, to the whole human family and to Jesus our Lord. Amen.