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. If you’re any good at math, then you have no doubt figured out that 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.
What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we will be looking at the Gospel of John. Specifically, we will be looking at seven supernatural events which anchor John’s account of the life of Jesus. These events are referred to in his account as signs. Meaning: These were not random supernatural occurrences. These were not supernatural parlor tricks, if you will. These were signs; they pointed to something. Jesus’ closest followers recognized this, if only in retrospect. Jesus’ most vociferous opponents recognized this and they did not like where the signs were pointing; thus their opposition. So what were the signs pointing to: Nothing less than Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.
Faith and belief are notions that typically get weird in any religious context. But in the real world, they are easy to pin down: Faith and belief are driven by evidence, and by confidence in the person or source delivering a piece of information. In religious, and specifically Christian, contexts, faith and belief take on a different meaning which sounds very much like what we in the real world would call hope.
But when John uses these words in his account of the life of Jesus, he is not speaking of hope. He is using these words with the real-world meaning in view, asking his readers to believe on the basis of the evidence he presents and confidence in his reliability as the source of the information he presents. He gives his thesis statement, if you will, at the end of his account:
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
In other words, don’t just “take it by faith”. Read the account, track along, and you will be convinced. Convinced of what? That Jesus is the Son of God. But that in itself is not the endgame here. There’s more: that by believing you might have life.
In weeks to come, we will unpack the seven signs around which John organizes his account. As noted above, these are not just random supernatural occurrences; they were intended to point to something. Become enamoured, not with the signs themselves, but with the One to whom the signs point.