Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Start at Easter Sunday, back up six weeks, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before. This is Ash Wednesday. It is actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Back out the six Sundays, which don’t count as part of the Lenten season (well, they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated to one who is not familiar to the workings of liturgical churches), and that gets you to 40 days.
Historically, Lent has been the time during which the Church has prepared catechumens (those seeking to join the Church via baptism) for Easter. For all of us, it is a time of preparation as well. We prepare for Easter during this season by focusing on Christ and his journey to the cross. The 40 days of Lent tie in with the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry (and in a lesser way, with the 40 years that the nation of Israel spent in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land, though this connection is not played up as strongly). Not all of us will go out into the wilderness by ourselves for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with repentance.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey. Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where ashes are placed on your forehead in order to symbolize repentance from sin. Ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol for repentance–the classic expression of repentance in Old Testament times was to go around in sackcloth and ashes. Ashes also symbolize our mortality–dust we are and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise again with Christ.
ChurchYear.net has this to say about the purpose and practices of Lent:
The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, spiritual growth, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
Since Lent is a time to focus upon Jesus and his journey to the cross, we shall spend the next few weeks in the Gospel of Mark, focusing upon a few episodes from Peter’s crucial confession of Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29) all the way up to the cross.
One of the first things to notice in the Gospel of Mark is that there is a drastic shift from the front half, in which we see Jesus teaching and working miracles, and the back half, in which Jesus is focused on his upcoming death and moving intentionally toward Jerusalem to meet it head on. This shift occurs right smack in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, in a passage where Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ:
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)
One thing to note about this passage: They are in Caesarea Philippi. This city was built by the Roman tetrarch Philip II and named by him in honor of Caesar Augustus. Caesar was widely worshiped as a god by the Romans. Mark is setting up a contrast between Jesus and Caesar here, and his original first-century readers would not have missed it.
In the very next passage one can see the shift:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)
Prior to this episode, there was no mention of Jesus speaking of his upcoming death. He may have, but Mark did not include it prior to this episode because it did not fit with his purpose in writing his gospel. His intention was to show Jesus teaching, preaching, working miracles, in short doing all the things that Israel’s long-promised Messiah was expected to do, and then show him heading for the cross. So what we have here is a complete change of direction for Jesus.
This should set the table for where we will be going in the weeks to come.
Allow me to close today with this reflection from Bobby Gross on the Lenten sojourn and journey, from his book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God:
We can think of Lent as both a sojourn and a journey. We have two opportunities to identify with Jesus, one at the start of his public ministry and one near the end. The sojourn occurs in the desert as Jesus spends forty days alone in self-reflection and discernment of God’s way. The journey takes place on the road to Jerusalem as Jesus moves toward his dark destiny. The sojourn causes us to look inward and acknowledge our human and spiritual vulnerabilities; the journey bids us look outward and weigh the costs of discipleship. Both involve turning.
In the solitary sojourn, we turn away from our sins and temptations and toward God and his great mercy. This is otherwise known as repentance. And while we usually don’t put ourselves in a desolate environment for forty days, we can choose a posture of humility and undertake practices that sharpen our spiritual awareness….
…”When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Resolutely Jesus turns toward death in fulfillment of his mission, and he asks his followers to go with him. This is the pivot from self-gratification to self-denial, from seeking acclaim to risking scorn, from the seduction of power to the prospect of suffering. In so turning we plunge into the paradox of the cross-and-empty-tomb gospel.