Ash Wednesday

Image by rpphotos (used by permission via Creative Commons)

(This post was originally sent out on my Lenten email list on February 13, 2002)

Today we come face to face with the secret no one will talk will talk about—we are dying. We will fade away. All our attempts at immortality from writing to painting to giving birth will ultimately fail. We will fade and we will be forgotten. The world does not revolve around us.

Some worshippers will be marked today with the ashes of burned palm leaves. The once jubilant leaves now remind us of our end.

A piece of ash marks the forehead of the worshipper, as the minister announces, “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19)

The blaring sounds of the radio have ceased. The continuous babble of meaningless conversation falls to the ground with an empty thud. We face the reality that a day of reckoning is coming. All must stand before a holy God and give an account of their lives. “And it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Ash Wednesday forces us to face the consequences of the fall. Ash Wednesday forces us to face our own mortality and our own failings. We are weak, we are sinful and we are in desperate need of grace.

Today, we begin a forty-day journey into the wilderness in search of that grace. Lent, or the “Forty” as some cultures call it, is a season of preparation.[1]

This rigorous journey will cost us everything: our righteousness, our self-importance, our dreams, and ultimately our lives. We are on the road to Golgotha. This not a yellow brick road to endless delight—it is a blood stained trail to death.

At Horeb, Elijah meets the untamed God who cannot be domesticated, controlled, or neatly contained. He meets a terror far greater than earthquakes, or whirlwinds, or blazing fires. He meets the terror of shuddering silence. He meets the God who does not explain Himself or His actions. It is here that God forces him to face his own wicked and prideful heart.

Today, we follow in the footsteps of Elijah and Moses and even Jesus. We leave the comfort of “feel-good” faith behind. Make no mistake. This is a risky venture.

If you are still reading, then maybe you are interested in this kind of journey. Maybe you desire the call of God more than more endless self-affirmations.

Let me shine a little light onto the path. This path we trod actually has a destination. Just as Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, we can also fix our eyes on the joy before us.

The path leads to Jerusalem, then to betrayal, then to crucifixion. When all hope is lost, despair gives way to hope again and we celebrate the resurrection. But the path does not stop there. It leads farther. It takes us to Pentecost—the true culmination of the Easter event. The Rushing Wind of Pentecost brings the promise of the Spirit.

The Spirit of adoption welcomes us into the family of God. He works in and through us to reveal the glory of God. He changes us into the image of God (in Christ). He draws us into fellowship with God.

In Pentecost, the hope of Easter is realized.

We have begun the second primary cycle of the church year (and there are only two).[2]

The first cycle is Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Advent (the yearning) culminates in Christmas (the Incarnation) and concludes in Epiphany (the revealing of God in Christ).

Ash Wednesday opens Lent. This begins the second great cycle in the church calendar and includes Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Lent (the fall) culminates in Easter (the resurrection) and concludes in Pentecost (the revealing of Christ in Man).

The end of the road is glorious, but the way leads through death.

Let us begin.

[1] There are actually more than forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter but the church does not allow fasting on Sundays because even during times of fasting, we must never lose sight of the resurrection. The church fathers forbid fasting on Sundays because Sundays are the Lord’s Day: the day we rejoice and live in the anticipation of God’s kingdom.

[2] The following perspective is explored in “A Season in the Desert” by W. Paul Jones.

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