Most of the Christian churches worship God within an ecumenically agreed pattern of biblical readings and sacred seasons known as the liturgical year. With its origins in Jewish festivals like Passover and Pentecost – which commemorate the most important events in Jewish salvation history – the Christian year is the Church’s annual pilgrimage into the significance of Christ’s saving life, death, resurrection and ascension for our time and every time. It is nothing less, therefore, than an evangelical interpretation of reality as a whole.
Lent is also the time when the whole church is called to return to the event of baptism and discern therein, again and again, the precise form its radical obedience to God ought to take for the year at hand. For baptism, to which the whole season points and for which it prepares, is at once the death of Christ and the death of his followers. It is our death to all that would maim and destroy on God’s hallowed earth; it is Christ’s exorcism of all that can kill the body but can never kill God’s promised future.
In the Great Three Days, which straddle the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter, the church recalls Christ’s baptismal passage from ruin to triumph, from death through hell and into the living hope of resurrection life. In the baptisms that are performed and celebrated as Easter dawns, the church embraces that hope and promises anew to live in the power of the resurrection yet one year more.
As preparation for this great Paschal festival of death and rebirth, Lent is littered with rituals that seek to inspire a fundamental conversion of life. The day before Lent begins – traditionally known as ‘mardigras’ or Shrove Tuesday – is a feast with a particular purpose, the feast one has before a fast or a famine. We mock its significance if we reduce it to either a mere fundraiser or a celebration of sin. It is the feast of plenty that one enters into knowing full well that such feasting is not entirely good for one’s spiritual health. It is the party with your family before you go into the wilderness to fast and pray and seek the face of God. It is the last supper before you take the narrow path that leads to salvation. ‘Fat Tuesday’ looks, with an appropriate level of apprehension, toward the 40 days of lenten fasting, in which the Christian is called to develop a discipline able to resist the demon gluttony and learn to feast, instead, on the word of God that is able to save us from the fires of our own destruction. It is also about the fast called ‘justice’, by which we are called to become poor, like Christ, that others may be enriched.
Thus, the day after Shrove Tuesday, Lent begins in earnest with the fast known as Ash Wednesday. As the name suggests, the central symbol at work here is that of ashes. Ashes are a biblical symbol of fragility, ruin, and repentance in the face of our greatest evils. Humanity, the ritual suggests, is little more than dust and ashes in the last analysis. Though God has given us a good world, by our choice for greed and gluttony, we destroy each other and burn into nothingness everything that is good or noble or praiseworthy.
The imposition of ashes on one’s forehead, sometimes mixed with water or chrism oil, reminds us of this uncomfortable but ultimately undeniable fact. The ritual also speaks of the mercy of God by which the truly penitent may be brought to life once more. Ashes we may be, but the grace of Jesus Christ has the power to reanimate even a worthless pile of dust and ashes so that it can become the compost of a better world.
In this, Ash Wednesday is a beginning symbol and anticipation of the Easter event to which Lent is leading. It speaks of our ruin, but also of the possibility of rebirth and renewal through a power in the world that is even stronger than our will-to-destruction: the love of God in Jesus Christ.
(previously published in Crosslight on March 6, 2011)