Ash Wednesday—The First Day of Lent

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. If you’re curious what it’s all about, then read what my dear friend Bob Zurinsky wrote. This is a sermon he gave a few years ago at Seattle Pacific University, and yes, I did type this entire thing out.

“Growing up as an evangelical protestant, I knew virtually nothing about Ash Wednesday or the season of Lent. If I knew anything, it was simply that this was a Catholic thing. And it involved archaic rituals and “spiritual disciplines.” Even in my early years as an SPU student a decade ago, the extent of my knowledge on this topic was limited to the idea that during Lent we”give something up” — we fast from something, usually music or chocolate or caffeine or whatever. But frankly, I had no idea why.

As I look back now, I realize that in the last ten years I’ve come a long way. Well, not literally. Ten years ago I lived in Ashton Hall, and now I basically live in the SUB. Geographically speaking, not a long way. But I know that I’ve come a long way up here. In between then and now, I’ve spent whole years of my life focused on the spiritual disciplines. Very Lent-like. And I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the bigger picture — bigger than spiritual disciplines, bigger than doctrines, even bigger than Christianity itself. I’ve been thinking about existence, and what it means to be a creature of this universe.

This past Sunday I became 29 years old. I celebrated well with a Stephen Newby concert at the Triple Door. Everyone should be so fortunate. For many people, things like birthdays become moments for contemplating life, where we’ve come from and where we want to go. For me, this is certainly a moment for contemplating life.

And you know what? For the whole Christian community—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, whatever—Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are moments for such contemplation. Contemplating life. Contemplating death. Thinking about what it means to be a creature made of flesh and blood, a creature of this universe.

I have some news that might be shocking to some of us: Lent is not actually about fasting or “giving something up” for 40 days. That often happens during Lent, but it’s not the point of this season. There is something much bigger going on here, something that can revolutionize our lives and our faith and our community. Please hear me out…

In my life and journey as a messed up person trying to be a follower of God, I’ve come to realize that Lent and Easter form the heart of our faith. Lent is this period of 40 days before Easter when Christians humble themselves, watching and waiting for God’s salvation. Easter is when we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And these two things go together.

My friends, Lent and Easter explain the Gospel itself. If you understand Lent and Easter that means you understand the Good New of Jesus Christ.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent, and we’ll be in this season all the way up to Good Friday, when we remember the death of Jesus. There is a special ritual that we engage in every Ash Wednesday. When you understand this ritual you begin to understand the meaning of this season.

As we leave the sanctuary at the end of the service today, the university ministries staff will be waiting in the foyer holding little dishes full of ashes. If you choose to receive these ashes, you can walk up to a staff member and we will smear some of this ash on your forehead, or on the back of your hand if you prefer. With our fingers we will take this ash and draw a small cross on your head or your hand. And as we draw this cross, we will say to you: “Remember—from dust you were made, and to dust you will return.”

And I tell you the truth, if you come over to my station to receive these ashes, there is a very good chance that a chill will run down my spine as I say these words to you, my dear brothers and sisters.

What the hell is this creepy ritual all about?

Listen my friends, this is what the 40 days of Lent are for: reminding us that we are mortal. That we are physical. That we are temporary. That we are falling apart. That we are first and foremost dust, and to dust we shall return.

There are problems inhere in human existence that cannot be resolved—not by our progress in personal sanctification or by finding our purpose in life or by claiming the victory or whatever. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I’m still going to die. Wash me whiter than snow, but in a few days or months or years this body will be lowered into the ground. These synapses will grow strangely quiet. No medicine can fix it. And whatever I was once about will slowly and surely begin to recede into forgetfulness.

This is what we train ourselves to acknowledge in the season of Lent. And this is why people have historically practiced spiritual disciplines during Lent. Fasting. Confession. Silence. Giving. We do all of these things because they humble us. They remind us who we really are. They remind us that we are mortal and fallen and temporary. And this is one reason why I love the season of Lent and the Christian faith itself—because it allows me to tell the truth about who I am and what this world is like. Above all, Lent is about telling the truth, no longer averting our eyes from reality.

And we do try to avery our eyes. We wear masks to hide our own finitude. Maybe this is especially the case in a university setting like ours. Some of us wear the mask of absurd superiority, or power, or confidence, or elite intelligence. And we all certainly avoid reality through self-indulgence or mindless entertainment or the ravenous pursuit of money or affirmation from others. Or did you really think that no one noticed the games we play? The prophet Hosea calls this what it is: prostituting ourselves with lovers that can never satisfy us.

But not now. Not on Ash Wednesday. Not Lent. Today I publicly admit who I am. I’m made of the same stuff as this podium here, and to dust I will soon return. I am absolutely dependent.

Is this all too morbid? Depressing?

Let me tell you why it’s part of the good news.

At the end of these 40 dyas we will remember something that happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. The man named Jesus, the Christ from God, did not avert his eyes from the human condition. In the most dramatic ways possible he embodied the human condition. He watched his own life and strength slip through his fingers. He watched his loved ones mourning and fearful. He embraced this reality with the whole of his being, followed it all the way to its inevitable conclusion. He took up this world up into himself to the point of dying with it and for it. Look at the cross—Jesus Christ has become us.

And in a singular act of defiance toward all of the transience and suffering and humility of this world, God raised up this body and initiated a new kind of creation then and there. Death itself was broken. The irresolvable problem of our mortal existence was settled forever. And this new life did not come from any of possibilites inherent in the world as we know it—this new life came as a gift from God.

This is why Lent and Easter form the heart of the Gospel that we proclaim: in Lent, we face the reality that we cannot save ourselves. We are trapped in a game that can only end badly. And once we accept that fact in our hearts, we are ready for the shocking and unexpected good news: it doesn’t matter. There is hope beyond this reality, because God raised up the one who represents all. All we have left to do is wait for that day when we will see this resurrection with our eyes.

We are part of a universe that is moment by moment passing away. But the system itself has a savior.

And that is good enough for me. And for that salvation I will gladly wait.”

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