Lent comes in for a landing this week. It touches down with Ash Wednesday.
For many of us who take the passion of our Lord seriously, it’ll be a day begun and/or ended with an ashen cross smeared on our foreheads. Unfortunately, I’ve already seen people mocking this incredibly solemn practice. One employed a photoshopped meme of the Dos Equis spokesman from a few years ago with a black cross on his head and saying, “I don’t always fast, but when I do, I make sure everyone knows it.” The person who shared the image was implying that anyone participating in the imposition of ashes is a hypocrite. How do I know? Because he cited the text of Matthew 6:16-18 above the meme.
Too bad he’s wrong in almost every way, not only because he’s mocking the same kind of ceremony demonstrating community-wide repentance recorded in Joel 1:13-14, but because even in the Prophet Joel’s day, the actions were not for the viewer. They were for the bearer. If their intent was to reveal to the viewer the bearer’s self-righteousness (which was Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16-18), then my critical friend would be right. But that’s not their purpose. They were starkly tangible signs meant for stirring the bearer toward and into repentance, to a recognition of the need for rescue from Sin and the admittance of complete reliance on God for accomplishing such rescue. And by the way, I should add that the Christian continuation of this Godly practice—one that employs the image of a cross—does have some benefit for an unbelieving onlooker. The cross will always be an unspoken, and yet powerful, proclamation to the world around us that Jesus is Lord.
How could that be a bad thing? Well, I’m guessing only a self-righteous person might be offended by a ceremony that puts the cross before the broader community. A cross preaches the need for a savior. A self-righteous person doesn’t need a savior.
But apart from the annual misinformed heckling of Ash Wednesday’s rich tradition, its rites and ceremonies continue to teach what I’d surmise is a two-pronged—and maybe even three-pronged—reminder. Firstly, we’ll remember as the pastor speaks the words of Genesis 3:19 that from dust we were taken, and because of this world’s fall into Sin—because Sin’s wage is Death—every citizen of this globe shall return to the dust. The carbon soot is a tangibly filthy reminder of this. Secondly, we’ll be reminded by the smear’s cruciform shape that the Rescuer has come. By His death and resurrection, He destroyed the last enemy, Death, and now through faith in His sacrifice, it is for us to be raised to live eternally with Him in glory (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; John 11:25). I suppose thirdly, it’s no insignificant ceremony that most will, before laying down to sleep, clean the grit from their faces with water. Martin Luther taught by his Flood Prayer that for believers, all waters can now serve as reminders of the lavish washing away of Sin in Baptism. Ash Wednesday provides a particular potency to this observation, both as it meets with Sin’s filth and our entering into the sleep of Death having first been cleansed.
Beyond these things, I’m sure the conflict in Ukraine is on everyone’s minds. It’s on my mind, too. Like so many of you, I’m praying for peace daily. And while I’m not necessarily a geopolitical Einstein, I am an observer of history and behavior. I know that actions reveal deeper things. As I already shared on social media this past week, I know that America’s military has been readying for war through sensitivity trainings that assume masculinity is toxic and focus on the virtually non-existent specters of white supremacy, microaggression, gender sensitivity, and the like (or in other words, the social justice ideologues have essentially commandeered the military’s leadership in the same way they’ve commandeered our colleges and universities). In the meantime, Russia has continued gearing its powerful military for commanding and conquering everything in its path through force. (By the way, to see the ideological differences between America and Russia, take a look at this video comparing the two nations’ recruitment commercials.) I know that Biden sent no small number of troops to the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and the like), along with attack helicopters and fighter jets. I know that NATO has activated its Response Force and is readying them in the Baltic region. I know Putin’s singular demand was that NATO not bring Ukraine into its fold, thereby putting an unfriendly force on one of his most crucial borders. I also know Putin has said publicly within the last few months that he believes the Baltic States are Russian territories by right. I know that he has a history of telegraphing his moves to test the mettle of anyone who might try to stop him, which is probably why he said what he said about the Baltics. He did that with Georgia. He did it with Crimea. I know that for as little cognitive ability as Biden appears to have, it’s likely he’s at least been warned by someone that the Baltic States are Article 5 countries in NATO, and if Putin feels threatened enough by one of them and attacks, NATO partners—which includes the United States—are obligated to join in a multinational war against Russia.
I know all of this. And I know it’s very bad stuff. For us here in America, I know it already means inflated expenses. I know people’s investment portfolios took a hit last week. I know gas prices rose above $100 a barrel almost overnight. I know increased costs for goods and services will continue to follow along in tow.
I also know that as I face these terrifying things, I am well equipped for dealing with the fears they stir. I am a Christian. I’ve changed. I’m someone who’s been lifted from the jagged landscape of hopelessness and set down in the verdant pasture of hope-filled faith. This also means I’ve become someone capable of working as hard as I can to change the things within my control, while at the same time submitting to God’s divine care in the things I cannot.
I can’t change the behaviors affecting Ukraine. I can’t change someone’s inclination to mock confessional Christendom. But I can labor to change myself.
Beyond Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent speaks to this, especially the season’s tradition of fasting, which is a biblical behavior geared for spiritual training. For many it involves going without something, or it can mean being resolved to spending a prayerfully selected portion of time working to improve faithfulness. Fasting isn’t required for salvation, of course, but it is hard to argue against Saint Paul commending it as good, saying that just as physical exercise benefits the body, so also do spiritual exercises aimed toward Godliness benefit a Christian both for this present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8).
Thinking about this, and considering what I mentioned above, I’m willing to say that behavior is one of the best indicators of a human’s innards, both physiologically and mentally. If a person is hunched over in pain, something on the inside isn’t right. I just spent a good part of yesterday in Urgent Care, the third time in four weeks, and it’s looking as though I may have kidney stones. It’s the same with the mind and soul. People’s actions demonstrate the fundamental workings of what they believe, what they think of others, how they discern, what’s important to them. Observe a person’s actions and you’ll get a pretty good idea of his or her innermost intentions and substance.
This isn’t a hard saying. Jesus taught it in Matthew 7:17-18 when He said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Of course, the Lord speaks this way throughout His Word. So do the Apostles. Take a little time with the Epistle of Saint James. Visit with both of Saint Peter’s epistles. Or Paul’s Epistles to the churches at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. You’ll see. Humans betray what’s on the inside by what they do.
I spent some time this past Tuesday in my religion class examining this premise with the 7th and 8th graders. We took time with the Book of Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and Luke’s Gospel. By the time we were done, not only had we concluded that faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel saves us, but also that it changes us—that it has a noticeable influence in our lives. For one, it chases after opportunities to repent and make amends for the sake of faithfulness to its Lord.
As it would go, one student dug more deeply than the others, suggesting that if a person claims Christ but has no desire, no inclination, no inner longing to wrestle against the flesh, then it’s entirely possible the person isn’t a believer. I agreed to this possibility. Why would I say this? Because again, faith produces the fruits of righteousness, just as Jesus said it would. It doesn’t remain settled in ungodly action or inaction. It has the inherent will to change, to align with Christ, to produce good fruit. This means that when, by the Spirit, we become aware of our failings, faith engages. It steers the human will into the fleshly fracas intent on waging war—and not just to fight, but to win (John 3:6; 1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:16-17).
What does all of this mean?
It means that if you are a Christian, and yet you are a serial gossip, by the power of the Holy Spirit you have what’s necessary for fighting this tendency. If you have no interest in changing, then you need to ask yourself why.
If you are a Christian, but you are short-tempered and cruel with your words in ways that regularly cause strife and division, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, you can be one who wrestles against these urges. If you persist in this behavior with little effort or interest in amending, then serious self-reflection is necessary.
If you are a Christian, but still your mind and body wander to mates beyond the borders of marriage, by faith, know you have what’s necessary for taking action against such ungodliness. Faith rises up to barricade against this behavior. If you have no interest in stopping—or you make excuses for continuing in it—there’s a problem.
If you are a Christian, and yet you continue to stay away from worship for fear of illness while at the same time visiting crowded grocery stores, enjoying social gatherings with friends and family, and other such things, take a moment to consider the contradiction in terms and what it might mean to Jesus.
My point: Fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12)!
Use the muscle of God at your disposal and actually compete against Sin, Death, and the devil. Take action. Do something to defeat these things, knowing that God is not only on your side, but He is with you in the fray. The pale, bludgeoned, and bloody proof is staring at you from the cross. Jesus has done all that’s required for winning you, not only from Death and Satan, but from yourself—from the Sin-nature—which does all it can to consume and digest you, which uses every weapon in its arsenal to hold you in bondage to who you were before faith.
Wrapping this up, this student was assuming that, at a bare minimum, faith would reveal itself through some sort of effort by the Christian to fight against fleshly desires. She had concluded that to rest contently in Sin is an action implying a completely different set of human innards than what Christ promises.
I happen to agree with her. And she doesn’t know it yet, but I gave her an A for the day. It’s likely I tell her as much when I see her at the Ash Wednesday service.