Not everything the church has done through the ages has been helpful. Some of the things that religious people have done have been downright foolish and, like other social fads, have faded with time. But one of the things the church has done right is the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 days marked off before the celebration of Easter. It is a time when people who believe in Jesus have pondered and reflected in a focused manner on the work of Christ in redemption. For some reason Evangelicals of all people have the hardest time with this. The same folk who will festoon and celebrate Christmas and Easter the loudest, look at Lent and sneer. I wonder at this.
When you think about it, Lent is the boldest of times in the seasons of the church. It starts with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes on the forehead. Ponder that for a moment: ponder the audacity of an institution that smears death in the face of those who belong to it. Sound strange? In the book, Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner, we have the spiritual biography of a young intellectual who slowly makes her way to faith. In her reflections on Ash Wednesday, she says this: “The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is nothing if not bold. The whole day is bold…the ashes are the boldest of all. A dark and undeniable slash across your forehead, a bold proclamation of death and resurrection all at once. You forget that it is on your forehead and you walk out of church, into the world, a living reminder that Christ died for us. The cross Miland (her minister) makes on my forehead on Ash Wednesday is no polite, small slice of silver dangling around my neck but easily slipped behind my blouse. The ash cross is bold, and undeniable.”
The reason this practice has stayed around and been practiced by believers everywhere for centuries is simple. It is easy for Christianity to become just another religion or inspiration, something we use to give us a good life. The easiest thing to forget in church is that the whole reason you are there is because you are a sinner who needs a savior. Think about it: at the heart of the practice of believing Christianity are sacramental acts or enactments of what is central in Christian faith—the cross. Jesus commanded we break bread and pour out wine continually. The church puts ashes on your forehead. Why is this? Because the most central thing to Christianity is the message of the gospel, a message of salvation that states that we are all like grass and full of sin and that the whole purpose of the Bible is to tell “good news.” Christ by his death and resurrection has opened up the way back to God and being reconciled with the one who creates us.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” So, we recall the words of the ancient liturgy as the sign of the cross in ashes is applied to our foreheads. Somehow I constantly need to be reminded of this. Wonder of wonder, the world has a great way of reminding me of that everyday. Age has a way of making me take account of the years that fly by now. Fading health makes me take notice. Failures and people around us are quick to point out our weaknesses. But when I see the ashes, I am reminded that God not only created me, but He also poured out His blood to redeem me! Dust, yes—but, because of the work of Christ, more valuable than all the treasures of heaven.
In the depth of my sin and my utter despair, the gospel is the lifeline that fills my sails with hope. I suspect the reason there is so much angst and ennui in our cultural moment is because, having lost the knowledge of our brokenness and need of salvation, we proclaim any number of systems of self-salvation. No other system of belief is so bold and daring to be that honest with people. No other belief system tells people they are ruined unless help comes from the outside. In every other system, you get a system of values that will supposedly improve your life and help you save yourself. Do the grid, work the numbers, discipline yourself, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Buddha’s last words sum up all salvation systems in the world, “Strive untiringly.” Where is the rest in that? Where is the joy in that? Where is the hope in that? Jesus on the other hand says, “It is finished.” I did everything for you—Rest!
Only Christianity boldly puts ashes on your head and says remember––remember what you are. Remember, salvation is a gift and you are pardoned by the doings of another. Only Christianity says rest! Rest in what Jesus has done for you. Every other system will lead you to a nervous breakdown, either because your own performance is never as good as it should be or because of the embarrassment you feel compared to others who are really doing well when you are just muddling along. What liberation of soul to know that what we celebrate at church is not the accomplishments of our members but what Jesus accomplished for His people. Is it any wonder that Christianity has been a band of joyful beggars, misfits, and failures? Ashes are a reminder that we only celebrate Jesus! None of us are self-made, and those of us who just muddle along are even more to be celebrated because it shows us how rich and deep is the mercy of Christ, which reaches out not to people who can help themselves, but to all those who have finally realized they can’t help themselves at all.
Yes, Lent is a bold statement. It is an admission that if we would be helped at all, it must come at the humble admission of utter need. When you look at the ashes, it forces you to trace the lines of the story back to a dead man hanging on a cross so that you could be exalted to the highest place. Anything less than that is not Christianity!