Ash Wednesday: It All Begins at the End

lent06Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter.  Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday.  That’s actually forty-six days.  Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter.  We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season.  The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land.  Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey.  Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead.  Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance.  Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return.  We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

And in order to begin our Lenten journey, we go straight to the end.

Our beginning as Christians is at precisely the same place which was the end for Jesus.  Just outside Jerusalem, right by a garbage dump, on a Roman cross, with two criminals on either side of him.  For several hours he had hung there, the last bits of the perfect life he had lived to the glory of God the Father draining out of him.  Finally he spoke a single word, and that was the end.

Words are powerful things.  Sometimes a single word carries an entire world of meaning.  Words like:  Graduated.  Engaged.  Employed.  Won.  Passed.  Healed.  Other words are equally life-altering but not in a good way:  Died.  Divorced.  Cancer.  Unemployed.  Lost.  Failed.  Irreconcilable.  For any of these words, you don’t need to know the particulars because the one word says it all.

The word Jesus spoke on the cross was just such a word.  In our English language it takes three words to say it:  “It is finished”.  But in the native dialect in which Jesus spoke, it was just one word:  “Tetelestai”.  (Don’t know the actual spelling, but that’s close enough.)

That one word, spoken at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, represents the beginning of everything we are as Christians.  That one word changes everything.

“Tetelestai”.  It is finished.  But what is finished?

A few things, which we shall unpack in greater detail over the coming weeks, though this is by no means an exhaustive listing.

–The system is finished.  Meaning:  Religious systems are finished.  Meaning:  Anything we do, or feel like we have to do, to get ourselves into a proper relationship with God is finished.

History lesson:  Judaism got its start back in ancient Egypt when God, speaking through Moses, commanded Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go.  Pharaoh would not, and so God killed every firstborn in Egypt–all except those who were in houses that had the blood of a lamb smeared on their doorway.  Every year since then, Jews have celebrated that event–the Passover–by sacrificing a perfect, spotless lamb.  The blood of that lamb would atone for the sins of the community for that year.  And then the next year they would do it all again.  And every year, year after year, they would do it all again.

Not to say this was a bad system, because it wasn’t.  It got us to where we are now.  It was the system by which God produced a people out of whom would come his son Jesus Christ.  But with Jesus Christ on the scene, that system had done what it was supposed to do, and now it is finished.

–Sin is finished.  Most people think of sin as something that makes us bad, and they think of the Christian life as about learning to be good, or at least learning to be better people than we are now.  Not so.  The reality is that sin makes us dead.  That’s a problem.  Because dead people can’t do anything to improve themselves.  They may think they can, but they can’t.  Jesus did not come down to earth and die on a cross so that bad people might become good or that good people might become better.  He came so that dead people might become alive.

–Self is finished.  Our way of doing things is finished.  Our rights, and any thinking on our part that we  have rights, are finished.  When you look up and see Christ hanging there on the cross, whatever rights, plans, and agendas you may have just don’t matter anymore.  What rights does anyone have who needed the word “Tetelestai” (It is finished) spoken over them just to be alive?

Our striving is also finished.  Gone is any sort of thinking along the lines of “Jesus did so much for you, what have you done for Him lately?”  Answer:  Jesus did it all.  There is nothing to be done.  There is nothing you can do, even if you wanted to.

–Division is finished.  I do not say this because I am on board with anyone’s attempt to unite all of Christianity under one institutional expression of the Church.  But this business of saying that others are wrong and probably not even Christian because they do not agree with you on every point of doctrine that matters to you, has got to stop.

Doctrine matters, but not nearly as much as you may think it does.  When your doctrine becomes an excuse to treat fellow believers for whom Christ died, as if they are outside the family of faith altogether, you’ve got problems.

Though there are many different expressions of the Christian faith out there–a reality both beautiful and tragic–we are all united before Christ in our dependance upon Him for our salvation, as we wait in faith and hope for all that is promised to us to come true.

When Jesus died on the cross, that changed everything.  The old narrative of God’s people purifying themselves through faithful obedience, carried out with zeal against the pagans who seek to impose their will from without and the disloyal, half-hearted, compromised, capitulating believers within, is finished.  Instead of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within, the battle is God versus the forces of darkness and death in our world.  That battle has been won through Christ’s death on the cross, and we are part of making that victory a reality throughout the universe.  There is now no longer any place for the old narrative of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within–all people are people for whom Christ died.

–The world’s way of doing things is finished.  The world’s way of doing things is all about power, all about getting power, all about impressing people by showing how much power you have.  When your king is someone who got himself crucified on a Roman cross, all that goes out the window.

That is where we shall begin our Lenten journey, because that is where it all begins for us as Christians.  Jesus’ last word is our first word.  His last breath is our first breath.  The end of his life is the beginning of ours.