By Linda Rex
On Wednesday this week a few of us gathered at Good News Fellowship, and we spent some time reflecting on the meaning of Ash Wednesday and sharing the Lord’s table together. This year was a bit unusual because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day were both celebrated on the same day.
In some ways there can be a disconnect between these two celebrations. As I walked around the local grocery store earlier in the day, the amount of fresh flowers and candy which were available for the customers was overwhelming. We watched people walking out the door with bundles of flowers, and my daughter and I speculated on who these flowers were for—a wife, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a mother, or someone in the hospital?
But the irony was, we were surrounded by all this abundance at the same time some of us were trying to determine what, if anything, we were planning to give up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season and Lent is a time when we may in some way participate with Jesus in his forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. We participate in Lent by heeding the Spirit’s call to repentance. During Lent, it is appropriate to offer something to God or give something up temporarily as a way of making ourselves available for the Spirit to grow, heal, and renew us. This is a spiritual discipline which has been practiced by people in the universal Church for centuries.
There is a perspective of repentance and humility we can gain by taking some time in somber reflection on our broken humanity and expressing to God our acknowledgement of our need for and utter dependence upon him. He is our Abba who not only made us and sustains us, but also redeemed us in his Son Jesus, and dwells in us and with us by his precious Spirit.
Many traditions offer a smudge of ashes upon a person’s forehead on Ash Wednesday as a mark of humility and an acknowledgement of our need for grace and salvation. The priest often uses the words of scripture: “All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” (Eccl. 3:20 NASB) That seems rather final to me. There is so much more to the story than we’re all going to end up in the ground, returned to the basics of our existence—the ground out of which we were made.
It seems to me, and this is just my opinion, that it ought to be possible to celebrate Ash Wednesday as a time of humility and hope. To me, I don’t feel we need to abandon our hope in the resurrection just because we are acknowledging our brokenness and need for Christ. As I offer the mark of ashes upon each one’s forehead, I like to say something to the effect of, “You came from dust, you return to dust. We thank the Lord of the dust he has joined us in our dust so we will join with him in glory.” The gospel tells us that death is not the end—there is so much more to our existence than this!
Thomas Torrance in chapter two of his book “Atonement” examines Psalm 49. Here he shows how the ransoming of a human soul or life is impossible for you or me. There is no price we could pay which would be sufficient to redeem any person from death. No matter how hard we may try, we cannot save ourselves. Our best efforts are insufficient.
God made us, the wonderful creatures we are, in his own image, to reflect his likeness. We are to be image-bearers of God himself. Yet it seems we prefer to image everything but God. And because of that, we invariably inherit death. We have, in essence, a “death-wish”—a corruption in our humanity which we cannot fight against or escape on our own.
God made us from nothing to have a glory which was a reflection of his. And all we seem to do is choose the path back to nothingness. As Athanasius said in “On the Incarnation”, in seeing his good creation falling back into the nothingness from which it was made, what was God, being good, to do?
What was God to do, indeed? As Torrance explains, God gave a life for a life—his life for the life of humanity. The great exchange is the Word of God, the true Image-bearer of Abba, given for you and me and every other human being who has ever existed, in our place and on our behalf. The Life for our life.
This is how we know we are loved by God. The apostle John writes, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us….” (1 John 3:16 NASB) Whatever Valentine’s Day may mean to each of us, we can know this: The true expression of love is found in the gift of Abba—his Son. The laying down of his Son’s life for you and for me and for every other human being on this earth is a true expression of genuine and faithful love. And no bouquet of flowers or box of candy could ever match that precious gift. The Life for our life.
So, even though we can and should admit our brokenness and our desperate need for salvation, we can also at the same time rest in the eternal embrace of God’s love and grace. We can face the dust to which we return without fear—death has lost its sting. In Christ, there is no fear of death left. We can see death for what it is—a defeated foe, a failed conqueror. Death and sin are cast into the fire of God’s love and grace and no longer reign triumphantly over us. And so we have hope in the midst of our humility.
Thank you, Abba, for your precious gift. Thank you, Jesus, for giving yourself in our place. Thank you, Spirit, for bringing this to full expression in each of our lives in your own special way. Our Loving God, we give you gratitude and praise, and offer you all our love and devotion, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind. The grave is their eternal home, where they will stay forever. They may name their estates after themselves, but their fame will not last. They will die, just like animals. This is the fate of fools, though they are remembered as being wise. Interlude Like sheep, they are led to the grave, where death will be their shepherd. In the morning the godly will rule over them. Their bodies will rot in the grave, far from their grand estates. But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” Psalm 49:5-15 NLT