I've had a bit of an interruption in my "American Gods" series of posts because of some work deadlines, but will be back to those soon. In the mean time, Lent is a really big deal to me, so I wanted to make an Ash Wednesday post. I would have liked to have made it yesterday...but...time keeps on slipping, into the future.
Some people might wonder why Lent and Ash Wednesday would be exciting to a magician, but since I've had OTO friends literally suggest that I'm a crypto-Catholic it probably isn't too surprising. I like grimoires, and I like the pre-Reformation grimoires, I like studying Catholic liturgics and Sacraments to deepen my understanding of the grimoire practice as well as my work as a Gnostic Catholic Priest.
But I find this time of year to be one of the most exciting for a deeper reason than the appeal of traditional Catholic aesthetics. It is a time steeped in the Mysteries, in the sacramental theology and a Gnostic soteriology, so deeply that as a mystic, a Priest, and a magician I can't help but be excited by it.
It isn't a time of penitent contrition but one of anticipating Triumph. Which in my thinking is very Thelemic on its own, but when we explore this Triumph it gets even better.
Lent anticipates not just Christ's Triumph over death but our Triumph by way of participation in his death and resurrection. We experience the Mystery of the resurrection and likewise become an initiate who has conquered death. The whole Lenten season is steeped in the act of embodying the Passion within the experience of the people. The connection to the Passion Death and Resurrection is subtly built in the people every time they take the Eucharist - just as ours builds within us the sacred marriage of Earth and Heaven and with it communion with the angel; but Lent steps up the experience by immersing the people in reflection through the Stations of the Cross.
Triumphing over Death. This is central in most contemporary Mystery Traditions. The Wica explore this in the Descent of the Goddess, the Masons in the story of Hiram Abiff, the OTO in...well...I'll just say it's public knowledge that our Master Magicians explore the mysteries of death. This is such an important element of the Mysteries that we see it all throughout Europe and the Near East going back at least 3000 years.
But, we're not just conquering Death, with Life, we're conquering Falsehood with Truth. Liber AL tells us death is a lie. The Mysteries expose for us that we are the same light as the source, and death is not the submission of that light to darkness but rather the revelation of that light as it rejoins eternity. This idea touches both on the sacramental ideal f Ash Wednesday and the Gnostic soteriology of Easter Saturday.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a sort of alchemy. The ash in a traditional context is made from Palm leaves saved from Palm Sunday. This is often interpreted as wearing the ashes of penance while recalling the impending victory of Palm Sunday and the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
But Palm Sunday isn't Victory. It is a Pseudo-Thronosis, or false enthroning - a common act in initiatory passion plays. In these rituals the initiate is elevated and perceives success but the success isn't real. Being caught up in that falsehood we miss the reality of our situation and get caught in the snares and traps of life, but if we dig deep beyond the appearance of darkness and difficulty we can find that truth remains.
At Ash Wednesday we burn the Palms; we burn the falsehood. In alchemy one of the first phases is calcination or burning the material to ash. For the alchemist that which burns away is the dross, the false material that that hides the valued and true components of the material. That which is true survives fire, that which is false can not endure.
From a Gnostic and sacramental perspective this gives us an interesting liturgical moment from which to work. In the RCC Penance is one of the seven Sacraments. Tau Apiryon has said that the EGC equivalent of this is Will. I personally interpret this to mean that rather than seeking forgiveness we assess our shortcomings, our failures...the falsehoods which hold onto us and prevent us from succeeding at knowing truth and expressing that truth by doing our Wills. This flips the idea of penance on its head and instead of finding fault we find strength. We recognize that we aren't just our actions and instead of crapping on ourselves for not being perfect we can recognize our potential, we can seek divine inspiration, we can commit to being awesome.
Ritually I've applied this idea by writing a confession, not of sins but of ways I haven't committed to the Work and to my success. I've then burned the confession. Once the confession is burned I make prayers to my angel and reconstitute the "salt" or the ash of the confession with the "sulfur" or "soul" using Abramelin Oil. So my ash doesn't just have ash, but like Chrism it has fire.
This confession first played out for me while doing the Abramelin Working, which contains a confession and wearing of ash. This idea of confessing to falling short of the Work seemed a fitting way to work on committing to it. From there, reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent led to this association between the act and the season. It is of course something you can do at any time, and I personally keep my "angel ash" around as a means to connect with my angel through material imposition. It is a very refreshing meditative and spiritual practice.
This connection to the angel brings me to my last part, the Gnostic soteriology. Soteriology is a theology or doctrine of salvation. In traditional Christianity Christ replaces the sacrifice and becomes the scapegoat. He takes on our sins and as a result, unlike the goat who is taken by the spirits of the wilderness, he descends to Hell weighed down by our sins, but he conquers Satan and Death and rises again so that our sin no longer has the power of death, since sin is what lead to death originally in Eden. He transforms the game by being awesome for us so that we can ride along and get into heaven based on his awesomeness. There are some interesting ideas at play here, but I don't want to get into most of them.
From a Gnostic perspective it works a little differently.
Jesus said these things:
"(13) Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like."Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a righteous angel."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."
Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.""
"(108) Jesus said, "He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.""
"(50) Jesus said, "If they say to you, 'Where did you come from?', say to them, 'We came from the light, the place where the light came into being on its own accord and established itself and became manifest through their image.' If they say to you, 'Is it you?', say, 'We are its children, we are the elect of the living father.' If they ask you, 'What is the sign of your father in you?', say to them, 'It is movement and repose.'""
(The Gospel of Thomas)
Jesus compares his teachings to a bubbling stream of which his followers may drink and become drunk thereof if they truly understand, as does Thomas. He elaborates that there is no difference between himself and the one who carries his spirit by becoming drunk on his teachings. He further elaborates that the Father is the Light that established itself of its own volition, that man is a child of this light and as a child has the light in him and that this presence of the light is what makes man living. This presence of the light is likewise the basis of the teachings of the Word.
Jesus stresses in many other instances understanding the living and the dead, and the relationship between the living and the dead and that one should not focus simply on the dead but appreciate the living Word which is before them, and which is the message they take in in order to become living themselves. A steady theme is the overlapping equation of Jesus, his message, life, and the Father. Each part in some way relates to another. But ultimately salvation for the Gnostic is not being saved by the act of another, salvation is recognizing death, seeking life through that recognition, and coming alive by embodying the Word and therefore becoming the same as the Word and therefore an expression of the Father.
Salvation is the knowledge that we may uncover Truth and conquer death.
In modern magic a key component of this is developing a relationship with the Holy Guardian Angel. In some ways Jesus's experience in the desert, like Moses's experience on Mt. Horeb, has a lot of similarity to encountering one's Holy Guardian Angel. Jesus continues this exploration further in the Pascal narrative with the Gethsemane. Jesus slowly uncovers and accepts his Will even if there are moments which are blinding flashes, not unlike the experience of a mystic or magician. Much of Lent suits itself to communing with the Holy Guardian Angel, which would reflect the Pentacostal imagery of initiation and the reception of the Holy Spirit, it is similarly hinted at in Christ's baptism, and of course his struggles in the desert and at Gethsemane to understand and accept who he is and what his calling is. But outside of the mythos, the ritual narrative plays this out for us as well.
We burn away what we aren't as we seek to commit to what we are. This is the commitment we make when we seek the angel ardently for the purpose of making a firm commitment to on going communion. The angel speaks to us, and pours out the bubbling stream which changes and anoints us. The angel leads us through our Gethsemane moments, to Triumph through our own Golgatha and understand the light within ourselves.
Ultimately this is the crowning moment of Lent. Not the joy of the resurrection, but the dark moment in which man can lose himself to distraction and terror or in which he can know that he is a child of the Light and that the light resides within him and is with him even in those moments in which we are most alone. As Jesus dies the veil of the Holy of Holies is torn asunder. The imagery calls to mind the leader of the Sanhedrin tearing his garments in protest as if God angrily shakes his temple and tears apart a symbol of His sacred presence in protest of his son's death.
But this isn't what's happening at all.
The veil kept people away from the adytum. The people couldn't directly experience God. But God became a man. In fact, God became man so hard that he died, an excruciating death, full of embarrassment, shame, fear, pain, and sin...so...much...sin, that you couldn't ever imagine having the weight of guilt, anxiety, self doubt, and confusion that God experienced. In that moment of death God is so infinitely human that the entirety of the experience of God is held within the experience of Man. God is ultimately alone in the darkness in a way which is the opposite of his infinite nature (which is likewise alone in the darkness), Which is what we are by virtue of being human. But here we see the divinity in that experience because here, for a moment, God is drawn into the lowest expression of our existence and therefore is closer to us than any other time.
In a Liturgical sense the Roman Catholic Church recognizes this as the death of the Church. It is often explained that since Jesus is dead, and the Church exists as his Bride than she has no existence in that time that he is in Hell. But more than the Bride of Christ, the Church is an intermediary between Man and Christ, between Man and God. The intermediary dies because God is so deep in the muck with us that there is nothing to mediate anymore. We're there together alone in the darkness, and we just have to open up and realize the Light.
We have to burn the Palms.