Today 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.
This year during the Lenten season we will work our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest book from N. T. Wright. This is especially timely, given the moment that America and American evangelicalism currently find themselves in.
Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is now on America’s shit list, largely because 81 percent of American evangelicals supported the most spectacularly unqualified candidate ever to run for political office and his message of hatred, fear, wrath, and unbridled lust for power. In short, a massive failure to represent Christ to a watching world.
So how did we get here? By forgetting our story. By allowing Scripture to be reduced to a mere collection of proof texts to support our most cherished doctrines while completely ignoring the larger story that gives rise to said texts. We jump straight from the sin of Adam to the cross of Christ, treating everything in between as if it doesn’t count for anything except for a few proof texts to support our stand against evolution or homosexuality or whatever.
God set us an impossibly hard moral test, which we have all failed. As a result, God is ravenously angry and wants us all to burn in hell. Fortunately, Jesus stepped up, God decided to vent his anger on Jesus, and now the rest of us get to exchange our just desserts in hell for an eternity with God in heaven. Just pray a prayer, or give your assent to a certain theological way of looking at things, and the deal is done. Of course, very few if any pastors and/or theologians would dare to put it that bluntly, but for a lot of the rank-and-file believers out there, that is essentially the takeaway.
This is a problem. As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (by making a disembodied, spiritual heaven the end goal of the Christian story), we have moralized our anthropology (by making a failed “works contract” the root of the human problem), and we have paganized our soteriology (by replacing the revolutionary Kingdom of God with a non-biblical vision of heaven and hell).
Wright’s big idea is that we as Christians have lost our way because we have forgotten the story of Scripture. The cross is not an isolated event in and of itself with a few proof texts here and there to support it. Instead it is the surprising climax of a grand narrative stretching from the beginning of Scripture all the way through to the end.
Our problem is not that we have failed some arbitrary moral test which God had set for us (Wright refers to this way of looking at things as the “works contract”). Our problem is that we were created by God for a specific vocation–to be his representatives on earth and to extend his kingdom throughout the world. Through Adam and Eve’s sin, we have rejected that vocation and become enslaved to the powers of the world–things like money, sex, and power–things which we were intended to rule over. Consequently, God’s design for creation is not going forward as intended.
Genesis begins in the Garden of Eden (which ancient readers would recognize as a sacred garden, part of any ancient temple), where heaven and earth intersected freely. Adam and Eve deserted their vocation and quickly became enslaved to the powers of this world. The next few chapters describe the rapid unraveling of God’s design for humanity, all the way up to the tower of Babel.
But God is not content to leave humanity to its sad fate. Instead he launches a rescue mission by calling Abraham and building him up into a great nation, which we know as Israel. This process continues as God calls Israel out of Egypt, builds a tabernacle in the desert, and leads Israel into the Promised Land. Through fits and starts the people of Israel grow up into a great nation, the wilderness tabernacle evolves into a full-on temple in Jerusalem, and a connection between heaven and earth, albeit a fragile one, is reestablished.
Israel was God’s rescue mission for humanity. But along the way, the ambulance veered off the road and went over a cliff. The nation devolves over the course of its history and ultimately runs smack into the wall of Babylonian exile and never recovers. Though the Jews returned from Babylon and even rebuilt the temple, they were under no illusions that things were as they had been before. Politically, the nation would not catch even a whiff of independence during this time period. Spiritually, they were haunted by the notion that the glory of God which departed the temple prior to the Babylonian exile (that’s what that crazy thing with the whirling wheels at the beginning of Ezekiel is about) had not returned and would not return until a way could be found to deal with the sin of Israel–their idolatry, their rejection of their God-given vocation and consequent enslavement to the powers of the world.
Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry unfolded against the backdrop of this story. Everything he did was a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth. It all came to a head during Passover week. Jesus’s cleansing of the temple was more than a rebuke of the religious-commercial establishment of that time, it was a message that the marriage of heaven and earth and the forgiveness of sins were no longer happening in the temple but in a life-and-death drama that would soon culminate in his own death and resurrection. One greater than the temple–the one to whom the very temple itself pointed–was here. Through the resurrection, God placed his stamp of approval upon Jesus and upon the narrative of which he was a part. Through Jesus, his resurrection, and the events surrounding the birth of the Church, the curse of Babylonian exile is broken, the long-departed glory of God has returned, and all that the prophets promised has come to pass. Thus what we call the Old and New Testaments fit together into a single, seamless narrative.
The cross was the beginning of a revolution. As Wright would say, the world was a different place on the evening of Good Friday than it was in the morning. What exactly does that mean? How did the first disciples and the early church come to understand the events surrounding Jesus’s death in this way? And what does that mean for us? We shall look at these and other questions in the weeks to come.