Pastor’s Perspective – February 2023
Most Baptists grow up with Christmas and Easter as the only major holy days of the year. Some have added Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and other “Hallmark holidays” to the worship schedule, yet still seem antagonistic to the far historically and traditionally significant holy days of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
I grew up Roman Catholic and while I am a ‘true’ Baptist -whatever that might be- I lead my congregation in recognizing the ancient celebrations of the historic Church.
I originally did this because the high Church traditions of my first congregation had already determined my direction, but over time I began to lean into the tradition and cherish it as a distinguishing line of faithfulness to a God that calls us out of our sinful lives and into His divine presence.
As our culture has grown more therapeutic in our view of sin and holiness, Ash Wednesday has become more important in the life of the local Church. Many people blithely accept the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an event that brings them unconditional salvation without ever acknowledging or understanding the cost of the gift. When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released in theaters many evangelical Churches witnessed the great cost of our salvation from the hyper Catholic vision of the Passion narratives. We felt the scourging and experienced the grief of Mary as she silently mopped the blood of her son and our Savior from the Roman tiles where he bled. It was a generational rumbling in the evangelical community, but while it showed the depth of God’s love and sacrifice, it did little to convict us of our own need.
Many of us see the cross as evidence of the enemy, without understanding that without the cross we stand on the side of Rome and the leaders of Jewish people. We are not the good and Godly Church but the forgiven and the redeemed of the world. We are not the righteous, but the saved, for in the Cross we discover that only God is righteous.
Ash Wednesday and Lent instructs us to see ourselves as we were before the blood of Jesus covered us by His grace and in His righteousness. We are whitewashed tombs, worthy of condemnation and exile. Unworthy of the life that God has given to us, trapped in our sin and destined only for death. Without Jesus we would be continually wearing the sackcloth and ashes of mourning and repentance.
Many within the Church fully understand that it is only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that we stand in God’s presence; but our children, grandchildren and those who have yet to experience the fullness of God’s mercy and contemplate the depth of our sin have been consistently fed the lie that we are worthy of God without the need of redemption and salvation. For far too many, the Church offers birthday cake at Christmas, flowers at Easter and tepid news to comfortable people who have no need of a Savior, Lord, or King.
This is not Good News nor is it the truth. Our nation is in pain and despair. Our people are wounded and broken. The old feel abandoned and the young cannot see a future that is sustainable. They know they are dying. They know that something is wrong, and they bristle at our smug responses to their pain and our confident instructions to ‘pull up their bootstraps’ and get all that they deserve.
A Church that is only Christmas and Easter seems too good to be true, because it is too good to be true. It is not biblical. It holds no risk, no pain, no sin, no redemption, no transformation and finally no hope.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is hope for the hopeless. It is forgiveness for the sinners and the lost. It begins with sin and death and brings all of us to new life and grace in Jesus Christ.
Ash Wednesday does not pretend that everything is alright. It does not assume that everyone in the Church is a ok. It begins with the assertion that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It asserts that the destination of all humanity is death and the grave, and that death is a consequence of our own personal choices and sin. It acknowledges that we are lost and condemned by our own actions and fundamentally in NEED of a Savior.
We wear sackcloth and ashes. We repent, even if it is in recognition of what we once were without Christ. It is both real and ceremonial.
Ash Wednesday is a time in which the great and the small in the Church acknowledge that without Christ we are nothing but sinners. The priest, the bishop, the deacon, and the drunkard all wear the ashes on their forehead. The ashes remind us that we are not Christian because we are good but because God has forgiven us.
From there we enter into Lent with all of its individual restrictions and exercises, not because we are seeking to earn anything, but because we are seeking to strengthen our spiritual muscles. Lent is a 40 day membership to a spiritual gymnasium. No is saying that you shouldn’t do these things all year long, but the Church understands that for too many of us the world has stolen the time that is due to God and left us weary and flabby. Lent is our time to focus on restoration and life affirming faithfulness. Think of Lent as a boot camp for your relationship with Jesus. And remember that some people pay enormous amounts of money to improve themselves in these ways.
None of these behaviors or services grant you any special grace or magically credit you with grace in heaven. That, however, does not mean that they don’t improve your walk with Jesus on earth and strengthen your faithfulness and service to God and the world that God has created.
Let us remember what God has done together, let us remember the salvation that has been given and let us show the world that we understand their brokenness, because we too are broken without Christ our Lord. This is the Good News that still transforms lives and raises us to new life in Christ.
So as an ex Roman Catholic and a current Baptist, I enthusiastically invite you to join me in celebrating Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.
Our Ash Wednesday service will be celebrated on Wednesday, February 22, beginning at 7:00 pm. The very next week (March 1) we will gather for Lenten suppers (6:00 pm each Wednesday) where we will study Brennan Manning’s exploration of God’s amazing grace, The Ragamuffin Gospel.