Ash Wednesday: The Beginning

lent09Today 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.

Last year during the Lenten season we looked at three words which marked the end of Jesus’ earthly life and the beginning of all we are as Christians:  “It is finished”.  What is finished?  Why, no less than God’s very plan for the redemption of all humanity and the putting of all the universe to rights.  Along the way we looked at several things that are finished as a result of Jesus’ victory over death through his death on the cross:  Religious systems.  Sin.  Self-effort.  Division in the Church.  And the pursuit of power which is the defining characteristic of the world’s way of doing things.

This year we will look at three different words.  These come from Matthew 28.  We will get to them shortly, but first let us set the stage.

When Jesus died on the cross, Matthew’s account records that the sun went dark for several hours; most likely a phenomenon we would know as a solar eclipse.  It was as if God did not want the world to see the disgrace of Jesus’ death on the cross.  The darkness of those hours matched what everyone who was close to Jesus was feeling:  Silence.  Disillusionment.  Despair.  This is the one whom we believed would save Israel, the one whom we left everything to follow, and now look at him.  Where do we go from here?

Night fell.  Still dead.

The next day passed, and then night fell again.  Still dead.

The next day, the women went down to the tomb with the intent of preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  Jesus’ body had been taken down off the cross and placed in a tomb the evening after his death, but it was a rush job because the sun was setting and Sabbath was about to begin.  (Jews don’t roll on Shabbat.)  Now, it was the day after the Sabbath and the women were going down to finish the job.  When they got to the tomb they saw the stone rolled away and this angel sitting up on top of it, chillaxing.  The Roman soldiers who were guarding the tomb had fallen down as if they were dead.  Now get the picture:  This was an elite guard.  They had been placed at the tomb by Pilate and the Jewish religious authorities because they were concerned that the disciples might try to steal the body and then claim Jesus had risen from the dead, so that it would not go well for them if they tried anything like that.  These were the baddest, strongest Roman soldiers in that part of the world, and they were on an assignment where if anything went wrong they would die.  Now this angel shows up all white with a supernatural glow, and they are so blown away by it that they just fall down dead.

Now the angel speaks:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”  (Matthew 28:5-7)

At this point you may be wondering:  Why an Easter story now, when we are only at the beginning of Lent?  The answer is that Easter is not just a one-day-a-year thing.  Easter is the reality of who we are as Christians.  We are a resurrection people, identified with Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead, and who has promised that we shall do the same.  That is who we are, and the penitential season of Lent does not change that.

The very first words of the angel:  “Do not be afraid”.  Anytime an angel shows up the first words out of his mouth are always “Do not be afraid” or some variant thereof.  Why?  Because anytime God, or an angel sent by God, shows up, people are afraid.  We love to talk about intense worship experiences as if God is present–“God showed up” or “The Lord showed up” are stock phrases used to describe such experiences.  Reality check:  If God really showed up, even in just a minimal fraction of His presence, you would know it and you would be afraid.  Very afraid.

Now we come to the three words:  He has risen.

This changes everything for us.  It means that we who are identified with Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead, have died to all we were as corrupt, sinful, spiritually dead beings, and risen to newness of life spiritually.  We have the promise of Jesus that our death is not the final word and one day we too will rise from the dead, just as He did.

Now the angel invites the women:  Come and see the place where he lay.

The same invitation is extended to us.

Here we pause to note that when the angel rolled away the stone, it was not for Jesus’ benefit, as if Jesus would have needed help to move the stone and get out of the tomb.  Not so.  Jesus had just defeated death itself; he had just been down to the very depths of hell itself to proclaim the reality of his victory over death in that awful place; he certainly could have moved a stone away by himself if he had to.  No, when the angel rolled away the stone it was for our benefit, so that we could come inside and see what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead.

So what will we find when we come and see?

First, we find that Jesus is alive.  This seems elementary, but it is really not.

As noted above, the reality that Jesus is alive changes everything for us.  It means that we who were once dead spiritually, whether we knew it or not, whether we cared to admit it or not, are now no longer so.  When we think of ourselves, we love to think that our ultimate problem is that we are bad people who need to be made good, or good people who need to be made better or to make the systems and structures of our world better.  Not so.  We are in fact dead people who need to be made alive.  And if you are a Christian, this has happened for you because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  As noted above, we also have the promise that one day we shall rise from the dead physically, just as Jesus did.

Next, we find that God has done it all.

Jesus did not have, nor did he require, any human assistance in his death and resurrection.  All his closest followers had long since scattered when he breathed his last.  No one was there, except for a few women who stayed to the very end.  When he rose from the dead, it was a solitary event.  Just him in the tomb, all by himself.

When Jesus died on the cross the veil inside the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  Why?  Not so that we could go into the Holy of Holies, but so that what was in the Holy of Holies could come out and into us.  This is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of the prophecy in Ezekiel 36:26-27:  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

Next, we find that the possibility of connection with God is now a reality.

Notice I did not say “personal relationship with Jesus”.  This evangelical catchphrase is a flawed and incomplete truth, but the reality which it represents is one of the most compelling distinctives of evangelicalism.  Up until Jesus’ death and resurrection, the best anyone could hope for was an arms-length encounter with God.  Even Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock as God passed by in all His glory.  Now, all that has changed.  Because Jesus became one of us, died and rose from the dead, we who are identified with Jesus have the possibility of direct connection with God.  We now have the possibility of a vital and meaningful relationship with Jesus, one in which He is not just a historical figure but an actual Person whom we know and relate to in meaningful ways.  (Not that He is actually living here on earth with us, though we Christians make it sound like that sometimes.  It’s weird.  But we Christians believe some crazy things, and there’s no way to talk about it that isn’t weird.)

Also notice that you may or may not feel anything resembling an experience of God in your life.  So many evangelicals talk as if they can feel God’s presence all the time.  Reality check:  They don’t.  No one does.  Those experiences of God’s presence where you just feel it and you know it has to be God, are gifts which God gives in His time, not yours.  But His presence in your life and in your world is real, whether you feel it or not, whether you ever experience anything or not.

Finally, we find that we have a new identity and a new mindset.  As noted above, we are people who were once spiritually dead but now have been made alive.  And we have the promise of Jesus Christ that we shall one day rise from the dead physically, just as He did.  Easter is not just a once-a-year event; it is the reality of who we are every day of the year.

We all have issues and struggles.  We have things that we will struggle with and things that will rule over us for as long as we live.  But we live knowing who we are and whose we are.  We live as resurrection people, knowing that we have the promise of Christ that He has risen and one day we shall rise with Him as well.  In the posts to come, we will pick up with the theme of the Church in exile that we looked at during the Advent season, and unpack some ways in which the reality of Christ’s resurrection and our identity as a resurrection people intersects with this.