In many ways, today is one of the strangest days of the year. Everywhere—at work, the grocery store, shopping, exercising—we’ll see all kinds of people walking around with dark smudges on their foreheads.
Now whether or not their own church participates in this ritual, most Christians will know that the smudge is the sign of the cross, and that today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
To the unbelieving world, Ash Wednesday is at best quaint (it’s sort of cool to have traditions, you know). At worst, it’s somewhere between bizarre and even anti-social. After all, to a culture committed to the pursuit of self-fulfillment and feeling good about oneself, this whole fasting and self-sacrifice stuff is an existential smack in the face.
Think of how these words contrast with our contemporary illusions of autonomy and self-determination: I am not my own. And I will die one day. And so will you. As the minister tells us when he rubs the ashes on our foreheads, “remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
And here’s the bolder statement still, a way-more-weird and counter-cultural claim—We are rotten to the core. We are sinners. So much so that God became a man and died on a cross in our place. He loved us that much! And then, get this: He came back to life. His body wasn’t eaten by worms in a tomb. He was resurrected from the dead.
What happened on that Resurrection Day, which we’ll commemorate 40 days from now, is the most important event in the history of the world. As Russell Moore has said, “Christians from all over the world, despite all this science and all this progress and all this technology, [still confess] what the earliest believers in the catacombs of Rome cried out: ‘Christ is risen indeed.’”
We confess it because what it says about God, the universe, and us is TRUE. On Ash Wednesday and during the season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving called Lent, we redouble our efforts to heed Jesus’ call to pick up our crosses and follow him. We meditate and remember with Paul that we have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.
Crucified with Christ! Our hopes, desires, politics, intellect, and yes, even our sexuality—crucified with Christ. What a thing to say! Jesus, who redeemed us by His blood, lays claim to all of these things.
This is not the God of what sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a god who demands nothing more than that people take it easy on themselves and be nice and fair to one another.
This is a God who says the two greatest commandments are to love Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And as Jesus said, to love Him is to obey Him (talk about counter cultural!) and to believe in the One He has sent. To love our neighbors, we preach the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection and His triumph over sin and death. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, take care of the widow and orphans.
Friend, what could be more authentic, more relevant, than to conform our lives to Jesus, who is the Way the Truth and the Life? Jesus did not and will not conform Himself to the culture. Why would we? How dare we urge others to? As Paul says, we were called to freedom in Christ, which is a freedom from conformity and from the desires of the flesh and a freedom to serve one another in love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5).
Now that’s a lot to swallow, which is one reason that for nearly two millennia, Christians have taken this long season of Lent as an opportunity to repent of our conformity to the world, draw near to Jesus, and prepare ourselves to celebrate the day that changed the universe.
If you’d like some helpful resources on the observance of Lent, including that DVD series T. M. Moore and I have produced called “He Has Risen,” come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: February 18, 2015