I’m thankful to write on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, an annual period of preparation during which we travel with Jesus to the Holy City, walk beside him on the road to the cross, mourn the brokenness of the world that took his life, and await the joyous end of the story when the angel rolled the stone away and revealed an empty tomb.
This bit of annual ritual is important for Christians to observe because as author Barbara Johnson has written “We live as Easter people in a Good Friday world”. The period of Lent helps us remember that while we know the end of the story, the world has not yet experienced the fullness of what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, or what it means that God has asserted power even over death. The world remains in a penultimate state, where we may anticipate the ultimate reality of God’s reconciliation with humanity, but realize that for reasons known only to God, reconciliation is not yet completed, not yet perfected.
For this reason, I think the period of Lent can be a somewhat confusing time for us, marked by both a ritual moroseness that doesn’t match the joy we have in being an Easter people who know what God has done, what God has promised us, and at the same time, observing what seems to be a self-serving period of sacrificial attitude that doesn’t quite match up with the self-emptying nature of Jesus’ Good Friday actions - the work done on the Cross that gives testimony to the God who mourns and bears the sufferings of God’s people. If your experiences of Lent feel like this, please know that you are not alone – today, or throughout the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. You are not alone.
Yet even this is a sign of our own weakness, our own tendency to exaggerate certain expressions of piety to a point where the performance of those actions become detached from their ordained purpose, and become gods of their own. Idols where we worship the action more than we worship the God for whose sake it is performed, where we think we are working out our own reconciliation in pious ritual, and downplay or forget the action of the one God who made reconciliation possible. So, as we enter the period of Lent, we do so by acknowledging our own mortality, admit to ourselves that we are indeed not God, but at the same time, we don’t spend these next 40 days as if that is all there is. The ashes we receive today which symbolize our weakness, our mortality, our tendency to praise our own self-worth, are washed away by tomorrow as we remember our baptisms, find our strength in the God who promises eternal life, and in the God who loves us more than we can ever love ourselves.
You might then wonder why we need to spend time in Lent at all. If the ashes are just a temporary symbol, if the varied disciplines of Lent are just pious expressions that make us think more of ourselves than we ought, if we already know the end of the story, then why go through an extended period of self-examination. Why bother walking with Jesus through the valley of temptation, then witness how the government and religious leaders threatened by Jesus plotted against him? Why take the roller coaster ride of joy on Palm Sunday, anxiety on Maundy Thursday, revulsion on Good Friday, mourning on Dead Saturday, and wonder on Easter morning? Why not just keep proclaiming the Easter story, and forget about all this morbidity and sadness?
Because we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we are called to live in this divine meantime, this holy place of tension marked by both joy and sadness over a world redeemed for good, but still beset by suffering while we wait for God’s will to be perfected. Lent is a time for us not just to focus on repeating acts of ritual, but to acknowledge that God has made us and called us in God’s image to participate in God’s breaking-in and ultimate redemption of the world.
The prophet Isaiah who we read today, tells us that this tension was familiar to God’s people thousands of years ago. While our Jewish forebears did not observe Lent, the confusion and tension around practices of ritual and renewal were just as misunderstood then as they can be today. In this passage, the prophet is calling out to a people who are heading back home to Jerusalem after a long period of exile from their homeland, a place where they believed God dwelled, a place promised to them through their ancestors Abraham, Jacob and Moses. Returning to Jerusalem meant a return to the ordained system of devotion and sacrifice that marked the glory days when David and Solomon ruled a prosperous kingdom. On this repatration pilgrimage home from exile, there was probably no shortage of discussion about a return to ritual piety and a God that would bless the various periods of fasting, sacrifice, mourning, and self-denial that marked the life of a Jew living with the Temple at the center of religious life.
As a prophet, or one who speaks with the voice of God, Isaiah saw the dangers of this longing to “make Israel great again”, and called the people not to put their faith in their pious acts, but in remembering what God has done, and what God wants to accompany those acts of devotion. Fasting here should be understood, not only to refer to the spiritual practice of denying oneself food or water, but as a broader reference to all such worship practices that when detached from God’s call to love and serve, become empty and hollow tools of our own self-importance. For Isaiah, a fasting that is acceptable to God is not one marked by drawing attention to oneself, by wearing a symbol of lying in “sackcloth and ashes” upon our foreheads, but by one that is turned outward to notice, through the eyes of Christ, those victims of dishonesty, injustice, oppression and hunger. Through this type of fasting, the dull, dark, and somber markings we receive on our forehead become the light of the risen Christ, rising from the darkness, overwhelming the shadows of evil, bolstered by the promise (I love the words of Isaiah here) “you shall be called a repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”.
At this point, some of you might be wondering what is the purpose of observing Lenten disciplines at all? Why not just simply go out and do the acts of justice we know God wants us to do, and spare ourselves the pious devotions that so often mark our own self-importance and tend to foster a sense of Christian superiority over those who seem to be less disciplined? A fair question for those who understand we live in a Good Friday world, and the needs of the world are just too great for us to waste any time with individual piety. But even works of justice, detached from devotional commitment to God can become lonely idols, marks of self-importance of a different kind – leading to a forgetfulness that we are also an Easter people – we know the end of the story, just as we know its author and hero.
It is not an easy thing to be an Easter people in a Good Friday world. Isaiah lived about 700 years before Christ and prophesied about the dangers of pious appearances. As we read today in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ taught about the same things Isaiah had written warning about showy expressions of piety detached from acts of compassion. But Jesus also stressed the importance of storing up “treasures in heaven”, of loving the things that have eternal value; things which can only come from the God who is the source of all love and has the power over all eternity. Treasuring the God that made us, is the source of power for the destiny to which God has called us.
Now 2000 years later, that tension remains. But maybe, that’s just the way it should be, maybe the tension is an example of God’s grace – that examining the tension as we enter this period of preparation helps us keep our minds and hearts on a Godly center, where both the cross and the empty tomb share a place in the life of all disciples. We start our journeys this lent with a symbol of death placed on our foreheads. It is a symbol of our destiny, just as it is a symbol of the suffering and destiny that Christ fulfilled on the Cross. But we are also an Easter people. We are witnesses to the end of the story.
My prayer for you this Lent is that you live into the wonder of that holy tension, not as a lament of some loss or lack of an ideal world, but as a reality of our own humanity, and a call to participate in the holy work of reconciliation between God and the world, that brings us to the joy of the empty tomb. Today we bear the mark of ashes, of death, of mortality, but because of Jesus, that mark is a headlamp that in a few weeks will guide us to the Resurrection.
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Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.