When Death is At Hand: Reflections on Lent and Ash Wednesday
It was the beginning of the pandemic, and we were still living up in Sayreville. We can all remember the fear, the anxiety, wiping down our groceries with sanitizer wipes. It was a stressful time, mostly because we didn't know what was going on. We watched the news, obsessing over the numbers. We were inundated with information about how many people were infected and how many people were dying. It was a scary time. Now, two years later, we are once again confronted with the reality of death, as our newsfeeds are filled with images from Ukraine, stories of young families fleeing to neighboring countries, and again, death toll numbers.
Death is part of life, and I do not say that flippantly, but while it is part of life, it is not a natural part of life. In fact, the Biblical story tells us that death entered creation through the back door. To be human is to flourish and live in communion with God and others for all of eternity; however, sin disrupted humanity's trajectory, tragically leaving suffering and death in its wake.
During the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, the church is called to reflect and remember. The tradition itself, the use of ashes and the season of Lent, has roots that date back to the days of Tertullian and the Council of Nicea, and it was always meant to be a time of repentance.
As a church, we do not formally participate in Ash Wednesday. At the same time, we do not believe it is wrong to do so. This would fall under the realm of Christian liberty. But the point of this post is not to debate the different views on how we should or should not engage the church calendar. The purpose of this post is to encourage us during a season that is meant to draw our minds to (1) our own mortality, (2) the cross of Christ, and (2) the hope of the resurrection.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of the reality of death, and while we might not need a reminder these days, and many of us are intentional about running away from it, the Scriptures call us to "number our days". We are also reminded in the Book of Ecclesiastes that so much of life is "vanity of vanities", and James points out the "mist" or "vapor" that is our life. In other words, the Bible is not shy when it comes to the topic of death. In fact, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us that "it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart" (Eccl. 7:2).
So we know that the Bible isn't afraid to talk about death, and goes so far as to encourage us to think regularly on it, but why? I think the answer is clear: death reminds us of our mortality and the sin that paved the way to the grave. In other words, when we contemplate death, we are reminded of the sin that separates us from the love of God. In fact, the images of death that we are seeing all over the news remind us of the separation that exists, not only between humanity and God, but between humanity itself. And this is where repentance comes into view.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to a life of regular repentance and confession. We see this in the Lord's Prayer, where we are taught to ask God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil". The season of Lent serves as a regular reminder of our need for repentance and confession, and it is a season that the entire church walks through together. But our prayers of confession are only effectual if they are grounded in something solid enough to achieve their intended purpose.
The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, "far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). There is nothing other than the self-giving love of Jesus that we should rest our need for forgiveness in. It is through the cross of Christ that our sin is dealt with, but there's more to it than just the forgiveness of sin! It is by the cross of Christ that death is crushed to death and resurrection life is poured out upon the people of God! While Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent serve as a reminder of our own mortality and our need for forgiveness, the season culminates in Good Friday and Easter Sunday where we are reminded every year that the person of Jesus, the second member of the Trinity, died the death we were meant to die, and rose again three days later, defeating death. God not only rolled the stone away from Jesus' grave, but we too will rise up on the last day with Christ. When Jesus ushers in the new heavens and the new earth, every tear will be wiped away from our eyes. On that day, "death and hades will be thrown into the lake of fire" and we will worship together, the King of kings, Jesus Christ!
During this Lenten Season, I want to encourage all of us to consider our lives before God. If you've never tried fasting, maybe this is the year to give it a try. If you're not used to regular confession, try incorporating that into your prayer life and devotional life. What are some things that you use to distract yourself from reality? Maybe this can be a season where you remove some of those things and replace it with time spent with God, perhaps with members of your community group. The church calendar has a way of spiritually guiding us through the year; use this opportunity to draw nearer to God!
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