(post originally appeared on Feb 23, 2012)
As I sat in the rows of an Anglican Church on Ash Wednesday, I was struck by an idea- those who are in Christ are marked and sealed as a community of the cross. Those in churches who observe Lent and Ash Wednesday receive ash on the forehead as a sign of repentance and our mortality. As I wrote on last year’s Ash Wednesday,
“We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall all one day return (Gen 3:19). Nevertheless, in the bad news of our condition, we are given a glimpse of hope. The ash placed on the forehead is in the form of a cross, and it is the reminder of the good news that, though we might be crushed by our enemies (as the psalmists often reminds us), we can look to the “founder and perfecter of the faith” for ultimate preservation.”
For those who are in Christ, we are sealed as a community of the cross. The ash on our foreheads points us to the reminder that we are shaped by the cross of Christ. Others in the congregation also are marked in the same manner, which leads to the recognition that we are all in life together. We are rooted in Christ and in the community of the Church. We are a people who are shaped by the cross- the reality that Christ was crucified, is risen, and will come again.
Indeed, we are but dust and to dust we shall return. While we have contemplated the ultimate destiny of all humanity on Ash Wednesday, let us also find comfort for being in Christ. For those who are in Christ, returning to dust is but an end to the beginning of the story. As I was reminded in a post by Jordan Ballor at Acton, death will put an end to sinning (Luther once said that while we are here on earth all we can do is sin!). We shall find rest as well, as eternal life transcends the false assumptions of one big harp-playing concert. Life after life after death will be glorious. So take heart, for God shall raise you up in glory from the mortal dust of our bodies!
But for now we wait, and serve the King of Kings, for Christ shall come again. Amen.
Today is Fat Tuesday, the day where you and I can get so much sin out of our lives that we can rightly prepare for Ash Wednesday and 40 days of preparation for Easter. While not getting into the questions surrounding why an individual should go overboard before a time of repentance, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday was originally begun to get in the last bit of rich food and celebration before the more somber time of fasting arrives on Ash Wednesday.
It seems like a lot of Protestant churches are now taking part in Ash Wednesday and remembering the Church Calendar period of Lent. Why, when I was a kid, Lent was just for Roman Catholics, not for Protestants of different stripes. But after my time in Church History classes in my undergrad education at Vanguard University and my time at Fuller Seminary, I have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful practice for the Church. There will be people who take part in the time with little thought, that will always happen, but the focus on sin, repentance, and the cross will make the victorious resurrection and vindication of Jesus that much sweeter on Easter.
If you feel called to give up something for 40 days, then that is great. But please, don’t go flaunting it around everywhere like a martyr. Fasting from something is meant to be between the individual and God, not a regular Facebook post about the desire to eat chocolate or drink coffee again. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Whether you do or do not begin the fast in the Lenten season, I hope you would at least commit to remembering God’s mercy through his action in Jesus. As I have said in a previous post years ago, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” While Christmas reminds us that God came to us, Lent and the Good Friday will remind us that God brought us back into the fold by bearing our sin.
And boy, am I thankful for that!
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
II Corinthians 5:21
By means for our first [parents] (Adam and Eve), we were all brought into bondage, by being made subject to death. So at last, by means of the New Man, all who from the beginning were His disciples, having cleansed and washed from things pertaining to death, can come to the life of God.
-Irenaeus of Lyons
Jesus was nailed to a rugged piece of wood, naked. He was beaten, had his beard torn off and was deserted by his followers. Jesus was placed as a common criminal, a person on the side of the road strategically placed to show the strength of Rome. The same person who created the world and fashioned the cosmos was now held to a tree. He was looked upon as a subject of scorn, an object of derision. He was placed there for the world. And quite frankly, I was a cause of His pain.
God, the source of beauty, was destroyed and disfigured beyond all recognition for the sake of humanity.
So, come to Jesus, come to the cross where new life is found. Now is the day of salvation. 
One of the great philosophers in history, Ferris Bueller, once said, “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I have held onto this quote and thought about it throughout the course of my life and Paul would state something similar in his letter to Corinth. He said that he would not run aimlessly, instead he wanted to run like the great Olympians, running for an imperishable prize. He didn’t want to box the air; instead he chose to train hard, lest he be disqualified. He wanted his life to matter in service to the kingdom and not stand idly by as an armchair athlete.
In Mark’s account of Jesus, we are given the curious detail that Jesus was walking on the stormy water. Picture that in your head for a moment. He was strolling across the waves, fully intending to pass by the disciples as they were struggling in the boat. Nevertheless, when they called out to him in fright, Jesus altered his course and came to be with them. He wanted to ease their mind, and silenced the storm, astounding the men in the boat. Jesus came to their aid, easing their collective minds.
God aids his people, even in the midst of the storm. Even when surrounded by enemies, or droughts, the Lord will provide. We have also been entrusted with the gospel. We have been given the unbelievable privilege to be ambassadors for the King of kings and Lord of lords. For those who are in Christ, you are given the words of life and peace, so present it free of charge and allow the Holy Spirit to cultivate it in the hearts of others. The moments of our life are fleeting, and if we don’t take time to realize that it blazes by then we can miss opportunities of service to others, whether in word or deed. Heed the warning of Paul, run with strength and don’t be disqualified. Life does move quickly, so don’t miss it.
Socrates was reported to say “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” Do you agree? What are your thoughts on living life on purpose?
Put yourself in the sandals of a First Century Jew. All you have ever known about God has been told to you throughout your life. You might have experienced it as well in the various temple sacrifices and ceremonies throughout the course of your lifetime. You remembered the Exodus, the Exile, the victory of the Maccabean revolt at Hanukkah, and still looked forward to the day when the Messiah would bring about God’s complete reign on earth. You trusted in God, and wanted to keep his commandments, being faithful to the gracious God of Israel. You didn’t want to end up like the people in Daniel’s day, removed from the Promised Land due to the violations of the Law. While you were being faithful a Jew, along came a man named Jesus. Surprisingly, He emphatically stated that if you believed in Him, then you also believed in the God who sent Him. If you looked upon Him, he said, then you have seen this very God of your people. Shocking, huh?
Jesus spoke on the authority given him by His Father. The people who praised God for bringing salvation to Israel in the Psalms and confessed their sins to God were now able to see this God face to face. The covenant-keeping God did something new, revealing Himself in the person of Jesus. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the evils of death were defanged and the problems of Genesis 3 were confronted.
For those in Christ, we can boldly assert that Jesus became our high priest, being merciful to his people through the propitiation and atonement for our sins. It removed God Himself took on the consequences for sin on the cross. God Himself made the sacrifice for the people of God. Jesus was both the priest and lamb who took away our sins. Therefore, we should break forth in a rejoicing song, for God Himself brought salvation for His people. God has paid our debt, now might we walk in grace and gratitude for Jesus is a merciful and faithful High Priest, taking away our sins.
(Below is a modified version of a devotional that I wrote for my church. It is based on the readings from these passages of Scripture: Psalm 30, 32; Ezekiel 39:21-29; Philippians 4:10-20; John 17:20-26)
Think back to your childhood. Do you remember a secret place you had? A place that was barely big enough to contain your imagination and visions of grandeur. I remember a stack of colossal concrete pipes that were placed out in a big patch of land behind our house. While the bottom, supporting pipes might have been filled with critters and snakes, the pipes on top of those were transformed into houses. My brothers and I each claimed one, making seats and chalk art on the walls. This was a place of fun, a refuge during the long days of summer.
In Psalm 32, David reminded us that the person who is truly blessed is the person who acknowledges his sins before God. This acknowledgment then leads to the confidence that he will be preserved in times of trouble. Trusting in the Lord will produce shouts of joy, for he will preserve us even to the point of death.
The refuge that we had as kids pales in comparison to the refuge that we have in God. That is why Paul had such tremendous confidence in the Lord. Look at Philippians 4:19 again. Paul is saying God will provide for every need. God will preserve you. He had the audacious faith in God to put that in writing.
Building on this idea, we now turn to remaining section of the “High Priestly Prayer” in John. Jesus prayed for those who would later on become disciples of Christ due to the testimonies of the eleven. He prayed for the people who heard and received the gospel, passed along from generation to generation, eventually reaching you and me. We hold the testimony of God’s covenantal faithfulness. We have been entrusted with the story of God’s redeeming nature, how he desired to pour out his spirit on His rebellious people. Paul was so confident in God because he knew that that is the very nature of God. Do we, as a community of faith, live in that reality? Might we walk in that reality.
The opening chapter of Mark has a story about Jesus calling the first disciples. He told them plainly, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” We are told by Mark that they left everything (including the family business) and followed him. Levi was also called in a similar manner, and he left his tax business to follow Jesus. The haunting image, for me, in these passages is that they left everything to follow Jesus, no questions asked. Pretty drastic, don’t you think?
I will let you discern what those passages might look like for people in the 21st Century context, since that is not the aim of this post. Instead, the immediacy and decisive nature of their action was what caught my eye. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we must be faithful to him, to follow him even if he calls us out of our present situation. Being a disciple means that we pursue him, even though it might mean that we leave a comfortable life.
Count Zinzendorf once stated that Christians are to “preach the gospel, die and be forgotten.” I must admit, I recoiled when I first heard this quote a couple of years ago; however, when I started to chew on this abrasive suggestion, it made me confront the reality of my heightened sense of my own self importance. What mattered in life was the life-giving truth that Jesus came to restore creation and reconcile broken humanity to God.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Seth Godin’s “Tribes” helped frame this matter. We are all leaders of a band, some have large influences while others have a small circle. As Matthew would show elsewhere, we are responsible for what God has given to us, whether it is large or small. Nevertheless, our faithfulness to that circle of influence and ministry will be rewarded. Those with large influences will be required much, and those with smaller influences will still be required proportionately. The Lord wants us to build for the Kingdom of God, and I am confident that he is faithful and will give a reward to all those who are diligent. As explored in more detail in my post Gandalf in the Sky, God is not harsh and he will reward those who are faithful, even in the small things. He will preserve our life and work for the Kingdom. He is faithful and just.
(Below is a modified version of a devotional that I wrote for my church. It is based on the readings from these passages of Scripture: Psalm 37:1-18; Hab. 3:1-18; Philippians 3:12-21; John 17:1-8)
We were reminded last week on Ash Wednesday that we are dust, and one day we will return to that dust. Continuing along with the theme of human frailty, we are reminded that our bodies are mortal in Philippians 3:12-21. Yet, Paul reminds us that we must press onwards towards the prize– the prize of an upward calling of resurrection. There is the tension of frailty and glory. He eagerly looked forward to the redemption of his body, when the transformation of the mortal body is complete in glory, made like Christ’s. Nevertheless, the hope in future glory and resurrection is inextricably tied to the cross.
We are not told to imitate a suave and debonair individual, like a James Bond or Cary Grant. Instead, it is the crucified Christ that we must imitate, the one who emptied himself and became man (Phil 2:5-11). This is a way of life, and believers are baptized into this reality, being marked by faith, hope, and love. Notice in the Philippians 3 passage that Paul invited others to imitate him as he imitated Christ, being fully aware of the influence of others who also walked in the same manner of cruciformity (cross-shaped).
Did you also notice a pattern of influence that came up in the “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17? Jesus passed along everything that the Father entrusted to him, giving the words of truth to those who were given eternal life. From the Father, to the Son, to the Apostles, to the early church fathers and mothers, and down throughout the ages, we have been given the words of eternal life, confirmed through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a simple contribution we can make when it comes to living out the good news of the Kingdom. We can invest in the lives of others, encouraging them on the road to the goal. As C.H. Spurgeon once noted, “Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you. So carve your names on hearts and not on marble.” So let’s leave a legacy by being faithful to Christ and passing on the life transforming words of truth.
Below is a passage I read in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer at a church service this afternoon. It offers an insightful passage that helps set the stage for a time of reflection on our frailty:
Dear People of God:
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
More thoughts will come in tomorrow’s post on what it means to be a people shaped by the story of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. So for today, I invite you again to join the historic, catholic Church and walk in this special season.
Lent is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years. While many within contemporary Evangelicalism are rediscovering this period of reflection and renewed focus on the grace of God, I think it might be a good refresher to provide some resources about this period. As Christianity Today reminded us, Lent is a time for grave reflection and forgiveness that leads to reconciliation and Christ-centered joy.
While I have written about Lent elsewhere, I thought it might be better to have some professionals explain it. If you are interested in the Scriptural and historical development of Lent and Ash Wednesday, visit this great article. Also see this post from 2010 that provides a great historical overview as well, taken from a book about Easter traditions. While those who visit liturgical churches on Ash Wednesday will receive ash on their forehead (symbolizing repentance and mortality), I would encourage others to consider partaking in this act and 40 day period of reflection in preparation for Easter.
Lent and Ash Wednesday reminds us of our own frailty. We are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall all one day return (Gen 3:19). Nevertheless, in the bad news of our condition, we are given a glimpse of hope. The ash placed on the forehead is in the form of a cross, and it is the reminder of the good news that, though we might be crushed by our enemies (as the psalmists often reminds us), we can look to the “founder and perfecter of the faith” for ultimate preservation.
So consider this a humble invitation to join in the historical Church’s practice of Lent. Dig deep in the historical roots of our faith, I hope you consider it!
Question for you: Do you observe Lent? Why or why not?