Lent begins tomorrow. We enter into it by way of Ash Wednesday’s gritty gate. The branches from last year’s Palm Sunday procession are reduced to cinders, cooled, and set aside to be daubed upon the foreheads of Christians. The smear is a cruciform one. It’s in the shape of a cross. It is this way as it marks an honest self-inventory that hopes in the Savior, Jesus. It signals a genuine repentance toward something deep, something that cannot be uprooted by human hands, but by God in Christ alone.
Mind you, Ash Wednesday leaves no room for the kind of repentance described by the poets inclined to mock it, men like Ybarra who so flippantly look at it as something we do on Sunday out of sorrow for something we did on Saturday, and yet, intend to do again on Monday.
Although, I should say, if this is your practice, then the shoe fits and you must wear it. I’d also suggest that perhaps you are more needful of the direction Ash Wednesday and Lent provide than you realize.
Still, such shallow religiosity does not beat in the heart of genuine Christian repentance just as it could never be the cadence for Ash Wednesday and Lent. In humility and faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are found sorrowful for our Sin against God and neighbor. We know we are as guilty as guilty can be. And yet, by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven, made new, and sent forth into the world as His own. As we go, we take the message of the cross with us.
When it comes to participation in the Imposition of Ashes, regardless of what those who poke fun at the practice might think, its partakers will carry the Gospel out into the world in a uniquely visible way. The cross will be seen on their faces, and by it, there will be opportunities for onlookers to know that Jesus still matters to some. Perhaps a passerby will, in kindness, let you know you have dirt on your face, and when you tell them it isn’t dirt, but an ashen cross, they’ll ask what it means. It’ll then be for its bearer to say with confidence to the inquisitive stranger, “I’m a sinner. I need a Savior. But, I know Jesus shed His precious blood on the cross for me, and by His sacrifice, I’ve been set free from Death and its end in the dust.”
Maybe you’ll be blessed with such an opportunity. Either way, I hope to see you tomorrow at one of the Ash Wednesday services here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, whether it be at the brief service in the morning at 8:10am, or tomorrow night at the 7:00pm Divine Service.
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.
The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.
So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.
I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.
“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”
And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.
A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.
You can’t ignore it.
You can’t hide from it.
You can’t outrun it.
You can’t overpower it.
The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.
It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.
And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.
Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.
Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.
That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).
It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).
If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.