Showing posts with label Ash Wednesday. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ash Wednesday. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Death and Ashes, Fire and Love

It seems almost a cruel trick for Ash Wednesday to fall on St. Valentine’s Day. One is the remembrance of our mortality, the other of love. The imposition of ashes on our forehead speaks of our inescapable death — dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But the mark we are given on this day is cross-shaped, and points to what is stronger than death. The ashes are traced in the Sign of the Cross, for it is in the Cross of Christ that we encounter Love, poured out for our sake. It is finally what the Incarnation is about, for in it we see what it means to be God, and what it means to be human. It is to love without limit and without end — Self-Giving, Other-Centered, Cross-Shaped Love.

This Love is stronger than death. For it has gone through death and come out the other side, “trampling down death by death,” as the Orthodox like to sing, and bestowing Life. And just as death cannot finally be resisted, and we all must die, even so, Love, which is stronger than death, cannot finally be resisted. For we are created by God, who is Love, to be like God, and so to be like Love. It is inherent to what it means to be human.

But, of course, St. Valentine himself understood this very well, who gave his life for the sake of Love.

The perfect Scripture for this day, to me at least, is from Song of Solomon, which I follow up with a couple of quotes about it from the early Church:

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.” (Song of Solomon 8:6 ESV)

“When death comes, it cannot be resisted. By whatever arts, whatever medicines, you meet it; the violence of death can none avoid who is born mortal; so against the violence of love can the world do nothing. For from the contrary the similitude is made of death; for as death is most violent to take away, so love is most violent to save. Through love many have died to the world, to live to God.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, Explanations of the Psalms 48.12

“Let the love of God be stronger than death in you. If death releases you from the desire for everything, how much more appropriate is it that the love of God should release you from the desire for everything.” — John of Apamea, Letter 45, To Hesychius.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Return to Me with All Your Heart
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. (Joel 2:1-2)
We do not know much about the prophet Joel or the occasion of his writing. He speaks of devastations that are past and also of great devastation to come, which he calls “the day of the LORD.” He speaks of locusts as armies and armies as locusts. In chapter 2, he describes a time of terrible judgment, when God allows the violent ways of man to come to fruition. Whatever the judgment is that he foretells, however, it is not the end nor is all finally lost. There is a word of hope from the Lord, an opportunity for repentance, for turning again to God.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing — grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:12-17)
Joel twice says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion.” The first time was to sound the alarm, but now there is a different purpose: to declare a holy fast and call a sacred assembly. Everyone is to come, from the very young to the very old, and even the bride and groom are called back from their honeymoon — it is a deeply serious matter. It is to be the preoccupation of the priests to weep between portico and alter, an area accessible to priests alone, to cry out for the mercy of the Lord, for him to deliver his people from destruction and the reproach of the nations.

Even now — whatever you have done, or are going through, or will face ahead — even now is the time to repent, to return to the Lord. Not in outward show or empty ritual, but with all your heart. Tears and ashes mean nothing without the heart. They do no good but are merely a deception. And God, who knows all hearts, is not the least bit fooled.

God is full of grace and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love. That it is what he is in his very nature. Those who are hard in heart are senseless of it. But if we allow our hearts to be open, even to be broken before him, we will experience the love and grace he has towards us. Indeed, it is divine love and grace that breaks open our hearts to receive him. And if we are willing to bring our brokenness for the sake of his love, we shall be healed by that same love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is This What You Call a Fast?
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? (Isaiah 58:5)
Is this the kind of fast that God intends, the kind that pleases God? That’s an important question as we approach the season of Lent. You might be surprised to hear that the answer is No, this is not the fast God is looking for from his people. To find out why, let’s drop back a few verses, to the beginning of the chapter.
Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. (v. 1)
God has a bone to pick with his people. They were rebellious. They had perfected the practice of sin. They were unrepentant. But they sure knew how to put on a good religious show.
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. (v. 2)
As if. They were acting as if they were eager to know God’s ways. As if they were a nation that did what was right. As if they were a people who had not forsaken the commands of God. As if they wanted just decisions from God. As if they really wanted God to come close to them. But it was all an act, a front, and not the reality of their hearts. God came near enough to see that.
“Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” (v. 3)
But now they were perplexed. They fasted. They “humbled” themselves, getting out the sackcloth, scattering themselves with ashes, putting on the mournful face and getting all hangdog. Yet, God had no regard for any of it. What’s up with that? Ah, but here’s the problem:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. (v. 4)
For all their fasting, all their supposed humility, there was this huge disconnect. It did not reflect what was going on inside. How they actually treated others gave the lie to their religious show before God, and it is about this falseness that God challenges them:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? (v. 5)
There is a fast God does desire, and we will look at that next time. But for Ash Wednesday, we must first reckon with the old dead ways so that we may embrace the new and living way God has for us in Jesus the Messiah.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Between Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Mark 9:2-8)
Last Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday, a celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ in his unveiled glory. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey with Jesus in the desert, where he was led by the Spirit, tested by the devil and ministered to by angels.

It is an interesting transition between these two days. On the “Mount of Transfiguration,” the glory of God was fully unveiled in Jesus the Messiah, and it shone brilliantly. “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). Suddenly, Peter, James and John saw him in a way they could not have done before. To use the words of John 1:18, they beheld his glory, “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Jesus, in his humanity, was reflecting the glory of God, as we all were created to do. In Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). We were created to represent God on the earth, to reflect his glory to the rest of creation.

Of course, we have done a miserable job of it. It is hard to reflect the glory of God when he are in rebellion against him. As Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Like mud on a mirror, sin terribly obscures the divine glory we were created to reflect.

But now on the mount, here was Jesus manifesting the true role of humanity, revealing the dazzling brilliance of God. Moses and Elijah were with him, representing the Law and the Prophets. Peter wanted to make three tabernacles — one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. But he completely missed the point. Not knowing what to say, he blurted it out.

However, God had his own idea for a shelter and overshadowed Moses and Elijah with a cloud — they were not to be the focal point but were there to direct all the attention to Jesus. That was their role in the history of Israel and in the Old Testament, and that was their purpose here. Then the voice of the Father spoke concerning Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

We remember all that on Transfiguration Sunday. But then, just a couple of days later, we turn our attention to Ash Wednesday, when we remember our humanity, and the divine glory we have obscured by sin. We are the dust of the earth, for that is the stuff from which God formed us. But our rebellion against God and our failure to reflect his glory has reduced us to ashes.

So Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance. But it is also a time for embracing God’s forgiveness, symbolized by receiving the sign of the cross made upon our foreheads with ashes. And it is a time to consider again, as we enter into the journey of Lent, how God desires to reveal his dazzling glory to us and through us if we will but let him. For we are also the breath of heaven, for it was God himself who puffed into us the breath of life. Then at the end of this journey, suddenly we will look around and no longer see anyone but Jesus. And we will be glad.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Taking On Lent

Lent begins today, Ash Wednesday, six weeks before Easter Sunday. It is a time of repentance and preparation. The ashes on the first day of this season represent mourning over sin and the longing for holiness. In Lent, we remember the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and His journey to the Cross. We become aware of how Christ humbled himself and how God calls us, also, to humility as we participate in his redemptive purposes. We consider, also, what our own place of service and sacrifice is in his divine plan.

Lent concludes with Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we think of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, knowing that soon he would be rejected by the Jewish leaders. The irony of this is subtly observed by the burning of this year’s palms to become next year's Lenten ashes.

Many Christians talk about what they are “giving up” for Lent. But that needs to be understood in the context of what we are taking on. That is, what am I willing to let go of so that I may accomplish the destiny God has for me? Jesus extends this invitation:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:29-30)
Paul reckoned it this way:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
The forty days of Lent is an opportunity to enter again into the purpose, passion and power of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be made more like him.