It is not until quite recently that I have learned to fully appreciate the beauty of the Christian Year (the liturgical calendar, if you will). I have learned about the way in which this Christian Year tells the Christian story over and over again from the season of Advent to Christmas to Easter to Pentecost and back again. When one observes the Christian Year and its seasons, one dances to the rhythm of the life of Christ and is clothed in His own life: a life a feast and fast, of joy and sorrow intermingled.
Today is one particular day on which we remember the sorrow of sin. Today is the beginning of the 40-day season of Lent: a season of fasting, of penitence and repentance. Today is Ash Wednesday. For centuries, Christians all over the world have observed this day that serves as a reminder of mortality and the utter sinfulness of fallen humanity. Christian believers receive ashes on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. It is this symbol which, for me, carries with it the deepest grief, but also the strongest hope, the gut-wrenching agony of sin and the thrilling, exuberant hope of resurrection life.
Much of this paradoxical feeling has to do with the symbol sitting on my forehead at this very moment. I often have to ask myself, “What does it mean to be a person of the cross?”
On the one hand, it means to repent of our sin which nailed Christ to the cross.
We are to remember Christ’s suffering on the cross because we are they for whom He suffered, and we are also they who crucified him… and continue to crucify him. We transgress in thought and word and deed, and drive the nails deeper into his hands and feet.
I, we, all of us are sinners: mortal sinners. The Apostle Paul made it quite clear in his letter to the Colossians that we were “dead in our trespasses” (2:13). Sin does not merely make us bad or immoral people. It turns us into the living dead. Indeed, “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) We are mortal because of our sinful human nature. As the minister who placed ashes on my forehead reminded me today, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is the one side of the Ash Wednesday cross that we rarely (if at all) enjoy speaking about. Indeed, who does enjoy the confession of sin, of one’s deepest, darkest thoughts and secret wrongs? We tend to remain secretive when it comes to our sin. We are like Adam and Eve in the garden: those who attempt to hide from God and from others that sin which so easily and obviously entangles us. We, like Adam and Eve are ashamed, for we know that we cannot stand before a holy, immaculate, spotless God in our tarnished, sinful state; and we are deeply grieved.
But, the beauty of Ash Wednesday also lies in the fact that we are told to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This Gospel is the scandalous Gospel of Jesus Christ: God made Man, come to die for the sins of the world. It is his cross that adorns our foreheads this day as a symbol of defeat and death turned to victory and triumph over death. For on the third day Christ rose again, and in him we have true life, life abundant: He is, indeed, the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25).
What is more, this claim that has been placed upon us through Christ’s death and resurrection bids us come and die with him, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us (The Cost of Discipleship). Christ has called us to live as he lived, to suffer as he suffered, to die as he died, to be holy as he is holy. This ashen cross means that we must be people who pursue the cruciform life, whose calling it is to live into the image and likeness of God in Christ, who loved us so greatly that he freely gave his life for us that we might be dead to our sin, and fully alive in him to lead a radically transformed life.
This is the paradoxical mixture of grief and hope, of sorrow and triumph, of agony and joy that comes as a result of the observance of Ash Wednesday. On this day, as we notice those walking past us with ashen crosses on their foreheads, let us remember that we serve a sinless God who took on our sin for us, that we might live.