Ash Wednesday, a doorway into Lent

– by Andy Wade –

ash.wedFor the Western Church, yesterday marked the beginning of Lent, 40 days of self-examination, of deep reflection, of humility.

One thing that bothers me about Ash Wednesday is the smearing of ashes thing. While there is good, biblical support for acts of repentance marked by ashes, I wrestle with those words, “From dust you were created, to dust you shall return.” Words from the curse after “The Fall” of Adam and Eve in the garden. But haven’t we been redeemed from the curse in Christ Jesus, our Lord!

As I reflected on this, I remembered my own experience of deliverance. For four years I suffered with pretty serious panic attacks. I ended up at the hospital more than once and was actually to the point of not wanting to go out and do things if it meant I would be any distance from emergency help. All that ended one afternoon when a good friend laid hands on me and prayed for my healing. In an instant, the panic attacks were gone – that was over 20 years ago! But that’s not the end of the story. God took away the debilitating panic attacks but did not heal me of generalized anxiety and mild depression. Why was that?

It was also about this time that I heard God’s call into pastoral ministry. I loved studying scripture and even more, discovering all the many threads that tie it all together and reach out to weave us into God’s story. And as I began this new journey I realized why I was not fully healed. It was because I trust too much in myself, my own abilities and my intellect. If God had chosen to fully heal me I would have wandered off into the ministry filled with pride and self-sufficiency. The only way God could use me for his purposes is if I had to trust in God, not in myself.

I believe there’s truth in that story for all of us. The Apostle Paul seemed to see it too, speaking of his “thorn in the flesh”. And whether we like it or not, the effects of sin, that big “S” sin we all participate in all the way back to Adam and Eve, still clings to us like flypaper.

We are redeemed. We are “saved” in Christ Jesus. There’s no doubt about it. But women still suffer in childbirth, we still work by the sweat of our brow, and we all, ultimately, return to dust as death catches up to us. If we’re listening, we are reminded daily of our weaknesses. We are reminded that God never intended us to live lives of self-sufficiency, of pride, of independence – especially from God. We were created for community. We were created for one-another and for God. And the remnants of the curse remind us just how dependent we are!

Shall we wallow in the curse, fearing death and doing whatever we can to hold on to life? Jesus not only teaches us, but lived into, a completely different reality; the reality that in order to truly live, we must die. We must take up our cross daily and follow him. To overcome the sting of death we must embrace it on the cross.

The cross, that symbol of redemption from the curse. That which was meant to take life in the most horrifying and humiliating manner has become for us the symbol of life. And Jesus calls us to not just embrace the cross as a symbol of life, but a way of life. A life of living, loving, sacrifice. A life devoted to God and the purposes of God – which naturally implies a life devoted to loving others even when it appears to cost us everything.

And so we arrive at Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Ultimately the sin of Adam and Eve, and really of all of us, is that we attempt to usurp the place of God. We forget that We are not in charge, God is. Lent is a time to remember that God is God and without that sweat breath of the Holy Spirit, we are but dust and to dust we shall return.

Lent is also a time to remember how often we get it wrong. Like Jesus’ followers who shout Hosanna in the Highest heaven” as Jesus rides the lowly donkey into Jerusalem – fully expecting some kind of military coup that will restore Israel to its former glory, we often miss what God is really up to. We have our big ideas. But God can and will do even more than we can ask or even imagine!

Lent is a time to remember that Jesus came not for his own glory, but for the life of the world. And when we follow him in life, taking up our crosses daily, we too are to live lives of sacrificial love for one another.

You can be sure that whatever it is that God is up to, it will involve expanding God’s Kingdom purposes – extending the joy of healing, hope, and reconciliation to our friends, neighbors and even the strangers in our community. But the only way we’ll see it is if we embrace our weaknesses, recognize that we are but dust – dust infused with the life-giving breath of God, and walk humbly into the future, trusting fully in our Creator.

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