Today is Ash Wednesday. In just under two months from today we’ll come to the highest point in the Christian Church calendar, Easter. That is where we’ll celebrate Christ’s Resurrection and how God’s perfect world broke into the present and our greatest enemies–sin and death–were conquered and shown to have no more dominion over us and the rest of the world. It’s meant to be the most effusive, overflowing, even ridiculous time of joy.
And yet, when we look at Jesus’ Resurrection, we see that before it ever took place, there was Death. And before that, there was an entire lifetime of loneliness, pain, suffering weakness, and isolation. We see that it was a life surrounded by evil forces and whispers that haunt and hurt Jesus and the people he loved.
And so, our early Church Mothers and Father thought it would be wise to have this time before Easter to prepare, so we might end up celebrating during Easter all the more.
Resurrection was itself a statement against our two greatest enemies: Sin and Death. And so to participate in Resurrection, we take the time of Lent to meditate and press into those things to which Resurrection was the response. We do this not out of morbidity, but out of anticipation.
We see how our hearts need Resurrection. We think on the sins we ourselves have done and continue to do. We take time to re-learn the lifeblood of the Christian life: Repentance. We turn the volume up on the dark whispers of our heart and become well-acquainted with our weakness and inability to conquer the darkness within us. We find something that has a large place in our life and we fast from it, creating an extra space to turn our minds to God, and another space to feel our weakness.
We see how our world needs Resurrection. We look out on the landscape of humanity and stare deeply into the injustice, evil, wickedness, Sin, and Death that is woven into the human and earthly condition. We take on the practice of Lament. We cry out and ask God those honest questions about where the hell he is and what the hell he’s doing. As another response, we give generously to the needs of the world as a reminder of how God responded to our need through a radical giving of himself materially, physically, and completely.
We see how our bodies need Resurrection. We also meditate on our own Death. We meditate on our weakness, our finitude, our inability to stop the impending train, and the fact that we will end. We feel the sting of breathless fear that this thought brings, and we try and take time to train our hearts to turn to Christ and His Spirit whenever this fear rises within us. We participate in the practice of hope.
We use this time to ratchet up the tension in our hearts and lives more and more, day by day, tighter and tighter, until it can break into unbounded joy come Easter morning and, just like Christ himself, break off the shackles of Sin and Death.
And it starts today, on Ash Wednesday.
Hundreds of millions (perhaps billions?) of people will gather today to take on what I feel is one of the most packed symbols of the historic Christian faith: the placement of ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead.
Ashes are a symbol of suffering, lament, tragedy, repentance, and mourning. The dust is the Christian image of what we’re made of and will become when we die. The Cross is the sign that God has met us where we are most vulnerable, weak, fearful, and needy. It is where he endured what he intends us never to taste.
Placing it on our foreheads hearkens to the Shema, the primary blessing and commandment of the Jewish faith:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
We publicly wear the ashen Cross on our foreheads as a sign of our failure to live up to those words, and God’s faithfulness in his response. We bind this, God’s greatest commandment/judgment/promise, to our foreheads as a proclamation, sign, and seal of what we believe:
Dust we are and to dust we shall return.
That is, until Resurrection.
Let us repent, fast, and mourn in hope. Happy(?) Lent.
Today’s readings & prayer from the Liberti Church Lent Prayerbook:
Oh God, you delight not in pomp and show,
but in a humble and contrite heart.
Overturn our love of worldly possessions
and ﬁx our hearts more ﬁrmly on you,
that, having nothing,
we may yet possess everything,
a treasure stored up for us in heaven.