Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the forty day Lent season that is consummated on Easter Sunday. The symbol associated with Ash Wednesday is a cross, a symbol of death. The symbol associated with Easter is an egg, a symbol of new life, of new birth. The Lent season begins with a death and ends with a birth. God’s ways are backwards.
Lent is a season of living God’s ways through fasting, reflection and repentance.
Fasting. The forty day fast is a gesture of withdrawing into the wilderness with Jesus, the time when the backwardness of God was embodied in the person of Jesus, as he turned down all that the world and its ruler had to offer. In Matthew 4, just after Jesus was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness, the devil tempted him saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Lent begins with a fast because through it we acknowledge a hunger that is deeper than what the body craves. The Lent fast is not about self-deprivation as much as it is about becoming a glutton for the Word of God. It is a fast that enables us to feast. Take the time this Lent season to give up one of life’s so-called necessities in order to indulge in the Word of God, acknowledging that your life on earth consists in more than your body and all its cravings. Awaken your soul to the bread of life.
Reflection. Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Indeed, we hear echoes of Socrates later in Paul’s command to the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). Paul’s examination, in contrast to Socrates’, was not an examination of life as an end in itself, but rather an examination of faith, which, for Paul, was the way to participate in God’s life. The unexamined Christian life is more tragic than any other, because Paul’s assumption is that there are people who hold up the banner of faith who do not participate in the life of faith. There are people who call Jesus Lord to whom Jesus will one day say, “I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23; cf. Mt. 25:12). Over two billion people traipse around the world toting this banner; but it is not necessarily clear whether those holding this banner are marching with the parade of this world or the parade of God, that is, whether they are marching the world’s way or God’s way, the backwards way. So we would all do well to take the forty days of Lent to examine ourselves, to really examine ourselves honestly and thoroughly. Let us all ask God to show us the areas in our lives that evince no faith-life, the paths we walk down in the company of the world rather than the company of God. And as such, we can respond by turning around, by repenting, by walking with God the backward way, proclaiming the cruciform way of Christ in light of the coming kingdom of God.
Repentance. In the first century there was a sect of Judaism called the Essenes, who required repentance and conversion to enter their group and who practiced something similar to the rite of baptism that we encounter in the gospels. Some scholars actually think that John the Baptist, whose ministry was the baptism of repentance, was a part of this sect. However, the Essenes were largely a separatist group for whom repentance from the ways of the world consisted to a large degree in dissociation with the people of the world. Jesus might have been identified as a member of this sect after going out to the wilderness of Judea (a place of separation from the world) to be baptized, except for the fact that he did not stay there; except for the fact that his baptism in Matthew 3 was followed in Matthew 4 with his gathering a crew of fishermen to fish for people, which was immediately followed by his contact with “ the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics…[as he traveled throughout] Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matt 4:24, 25). And this ministry of touching the untouchables, those whom a separatist group would most eagerly avoid, was coupled with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). The season of Lent as a season of repentance is not meant to prepare us for Easter by separating us from the world of humanity, as though the resurrection is about escaping the world. It is precisely the opposite! Our wilderness of repentance prepares us for Easter because in it we acknowledge that God’s world has broken into the world of humanity—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!—so we can thereafter return to the world to parade through the cities—on the wrong side of the road—proclaiming the Easter message: “It is here! The kingdom of heaven is here! The King has come to rescue us from sin and death and evil!
And, indeed, this message is backwards. It is significant that the ashes that are used to make the sign of the cross on the believer’s forehead on Ash Wednesday are made from the palm branches used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The branches that were used to celebrate Jesus’ royal procession into Jerusalem are burned to symbolize the death of our idolatrous definitions of power and glory and honor, all of which were projected onto Jesus when he came to Jerusalem to take his throne. Ash Wednesday calls for a redefinition of all our categories of sovereignty as we remember that our God took his throne on a cross. So let us humbly accept the backward ways of God. Let us allow death to be the beginning of life. And as we move backward toward the Easter celebration, I hope that each of us will have a meaningful Lent season: feasting on the Word of God, reflecting on the life of faith, and repenting from our worldly ways, all to prepare for our proclamation of Easter—Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!