Updated: Mar 10, 2022
This post corresponds with our Lenten Study Session series, On the Trail to Skull Hill. We begin by exploring the significance of Ash Wednesday as we begin the season of Lent.
Families gather for times of celebration and also for times of mourning, both weddings and funerals. This is not a funeral…but it is preparation for a funeral. It’s preparation for Good Friday…in the light of Easter Sunday. So there is a bittersweet quality to consciously stepping into the season of Lent…which is why we tend to ignore it. Or if we don’t ignore it, we simply substitute activities (like fasting) in place of looking deeply into the face of death, which those activities are meant to symbolize.
Lent, for those of you who might be new to it, is the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—a season of giving fresh attention to the condition of our hearts.The practice gradually emerged in the early church, recognized formally by the Council of Nicea in 325. Most denominations in both the western and eastern Church embraced it. But as the contemporary church has become increasingly casual and moved away from the church calendar, many churches today either (as we’ve said) either ignore it completely or push it to the periphery. In Eastern Orthodox circles, Lent is known as the "bright sadness," which captures both the bitter and the sweet as we move toward commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ.
Today we begin a 40-day journey toward the cross, a very powerful symbol. During Lent, we choose to lay aside some of our distractions and face the most intimidating and uncomfortable part of our lives: Death. Most cultures in the world do a better job of being present to death than Americans. We tend to get caught up with youth and beauty and entertainment and productivity. That last thing we want to deal with is our mortality! We are all about the path of ascent—the next promotion, the bigger salary, the bigger house, greater respect and influence.
We know little of the path of descent. The practice of Lent is a strong corrective to this national deficiency…even the deficiencies of our version of Christianity.
It’s easy to see the cross as an experience unique to Jesus, to view it transactionally as the ultimate judicial or negotiation tactic to win our freedom. Instead, I see the cross as Jesus’ ultimate commentary on the spiritual journey for all of us. And Jesus offered lots of clues in this direction!
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
“Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jn. 12:24-26).
In this passage Jesus connects his coming death with our death. He’s saying that the only way to really come to life and create life is to die. This means that the primary mission we have in life is to learn to die before we die! In 1 Corinthians, Paul quotes Hosea saying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55) This jubilation makes sense post-resurrection… but let me assure you that there is a sting to death. There was for Jesus, and there is for us too.
I face this sting almost every day as I try to relinquish my instinctive grab for approval, security, and control. Surrendering my will, my hopes, my fears into the daily care of Christ. Paul says that “the sting of death is sin,” and our sin typically shows up as trying to engineer our own approval, security, and control…rather than letting go and trusting God as our abundant provision.
The 40 days of Lent mirrors the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert facing these same 3 temptations: Turning a stone into bread – the need for security. Leaping safely from the temple – the need for approval. Winning the kingdoms of the world – the need for control. Letting go of these needs hurts. I think the sting of surrender is more painful than the sting of sin…but of course, it is the only path to freedom. And freedom is what we’re made for. Freedom brings forth the True Self, so that we can extend the redemptive presence of Christ in our world. So that Christ-in-us can heal the world with love.
So as we enter 40 days leading to the cross and the resurrection, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus, who endured the cross, scorning its sting, and sat down at the right hand of God.