Today is Ash Wednesday which, in the Christian church calendar, is the beginning of Lent. That season that too many people think is meant as a take two on their New Year’s resolution to give up sweets. There’s nothing inherently wrong with giving something up for Lent, but I think it glosses over the real point. The point that Ash Wednesday lays down pretty unavoidably.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
We are forcefully reminded of our sinfulness as a cross of ash is smeared upon our foreheads. I know this is a pretty ritualistic thing, so a lot of churches don’t do it, but there is a significance in these ashes that helps to put the next forty days into perspective.
We are rank and stagnant sinners. Made from the dust of the earth and destined to return to it. When we die, our bodies decay and become dust once again. We are filthy and spoiled and utterly unlovable and our fate is eternal death.
But that is just the beginning. The ashes are the reminder of the law and its crushing weight, but not so that we should live wretched and hopeless lives. You see, the weight of our transgressions forces us to our knees at the foot of our cross. It places our punishment squarely before us.
Then we look up at that cross and see that someone is already hanging there. Someone who has taken the blame for every action done out or our sinful hearts. Someone who deigned to love us, unlovable though we were. Someone more than prepared to do the impossible. God himself taking the full agonizing excruciating weight of our rightful consequences on his own human shoulders and paying every debt we owe.
There is no way to understand it. We do nothing but hurt God and turn away from him. We are selfish and greedy. We indulge in lust and disregard respect. Time and again we destroy our Creator’s gifts as if it were a right. And yet, still he hangs on the cross in our place.
From that perspective, we arrive at the triumphant Easter morning. Death itself is slain and God stands victorious over it all. Alive in the most complete and final sense of the word. And he reaches down to take your hand and pull you up. He calls you his precious and beloved child. He gives you his own life to share in for all of eternity. Instead of the eternal unbearable misery that you deserve, he gives you love and life unfathomable.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved byhis life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Christ died for the ungodly.
While we were still sinners.
And that is why Ash Wednesday is so important. Because if we do not know how hopeless and despicable and pitiful we were, then the empty tomb means nothing to us. If we do not know how desperate and pathetic we were, we have no idea of the overwhelming honor and blessing that has so undeservedly been bestowed on us. If it is not for the law, the gospel has no bearing.
It is because of my sin that I cannot find enough ways to express my gratitude for my salvation. While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. I am more than a conqueror because of the blood of Jesus. And so I can do nothing but celebrate the love that has been given to me. As the ashes are placed on my forehead, I have no choice but to sing praises and rejoice for he is victorious!