In my church tradition there was no official church calendar or weekly lectionary to follow. Sure, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, but I had no idea they were actually part of an intentional church calendar that many churches followed. So I knew very little about Ash Wednesday—the day in the church calendar that marks the beginning of Lent. I was like many others who had never chosen to observe Lent. It seemed to just be a religious version of New Year’s resolutions. In my prior vocation, I would poke fun at anyone with an ashen cross on their forehead. I had a righteousness that exceeded theirs, so I did not need to participate in such silliness. I was ‘better’ than them for not marking myself with the cross.
It was a Lutheran worship service while vacationing in Key West that was instrumental in reshaping my understanding of Lent. There in Key West, on that first Sunday of Lent, God began the process of exposing my heart—revealing that the very purpose of Lent was to expose my desperate need of the finished work of Christ.
Lent is not about getting our lives under control. Lent is about giving up control. Lent is not about our commitment to God, but His commitment to us. God is not found by running away from brokenness and mortality, but by meeting him in it. A central truth of Christianity is we must give up. We must give up control. We must surrender. We seek control by more power, money, self-control. None of those things can stop death. Death reminds us how very little control we have over anything. It is actually good news to mark ourselves as a people who will return to dust.
We live in a death-denying culture where we are bombarded with products, activities, and surgeries that sell, because we all long to defy our mortality. Ashes serve as a protest to our death-denying culture. A protest and reminder that this is who we really are.
You may be saying, wow! Why have a day that reminds me of something I’d rather not think about? How depressing is that? Putting ashes on our forehead is not depressing. What is depressing is our construction of sin management programs, in which we attempt to free ourselves from our frailty and brokenness, and all those attempts have failed. Yet, we keep thinking that we just have not found the one that will help us pull it off. So we look, and try again and again, and we fail again and again—leaving us to cry out in desperation like St. Paul: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The season of Lent is freeing and not enslaving. We don’t have to pretend anymore, for Lent moves us from death to life (resurrection). The rescue that comes in Christ. To deny death is to deny resurrection.
The mark on the forehead is not an outward mark of our rightness. It is an outward mark of our desperation and need of Jesus. A reminder that only Jesus can deliver me from this body of death.
Now on Ash Wednesday I share with the people of God. If they are out and about and someone asks them what the ashes on their forehead mean, tell them it means: “I give up, but Jesus doesn’t and never did” Give up your depressing need to be superhuman. You don’t have to superhuman. You can’t be. Be you. Lent is a season to stop learning how to be better, and start looking for Christ to save us. Jesus saves, only Jesus saves.
Posted on Mon, March 6, 2017
by Brad Bresson