The act of marking ourselves with ashes likely seems a bit absurd to most bystanders. It may not make sense to many participants. A fairly rational group of people gathers in the middle of a normal workweek for prayer, song, and scripture. In the midst of this, we come forward to have ash smeared upon our foreheads and hear the ominous words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The entire ritual of Ash Wednesday seems a bit strange even within our theological heritage. A people committed to God’s grace rather than works of righteousness gather to commit to Lenten disciplines. A people devoted to cleanliness in the blood of Jesus smear ashes of penitence upon our foreheads. This time is unlike any other in the life of the church.
There’s actually a liturgical logic to Ash Wednesday, one the helps us not only comprehend the church year but also to act out, to rehearse, to remember the work of God in our own lives. The liturgical year flows alongside the life of Christ and the narrative of Scripture. From Jesus’ birth (Advent and Christmas), through his life (Epiphany and Lent), then his death and resurrection (Triduum and Easter), then to the life of the church in the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), the church year guides us along scripture to help us remember God’s written word as a testimony to Jesus Christ, the Living Word.
Ash Wednesday, the doorway into Lent, reminds us of our need of re-creation. As people called to live lives of justice and mercy, we must first recognize our own propensity to injustice, our habitual rush to judgment. We gather in full knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection, and yet live out the reality that we must again ask for the forgiveness. In this way, Ash Wednesday is an extended kyrie, a plea for mercy we know we've received. We commit to disciplines to live out the change we've received in the Gospel. We take ash upon our foreheads to remember not only that we came from dust and shall return to dust, but also that God once breathed life into the dust of Eden, and does so again in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We participate in these rituals to help us tangibly recall the life of Christ, to remember the work of God not just in our minds, but with our bodies. Take those ashes upon yourself, remembering that we’re the dust God chose, the dust that reflects the image of God.
As we commemorate Jesus’ transfiguration this coming Sunday, we also prepare to descend to the earthiness of Ash Wednesday only a few days later. The penitence of Lent follows for forty days.
In one of the beauties of the church year, our season of ashes is surrounded by the brightness of Christ. We begin with descent from the transfiguration mountain to the depths of repentance and walk a journey through the dirt of humanity, ending in the cross, the result of our sin and the location of our forgiveness. On Easter morn, the light of Christ returns as the Son rises from the grave to bring the light of salvation to the world. The angels that announce his return appear dazzling, as white as lightning. The light that we leave on Transfiguration Sunday returns magnified and clarified in the experience of Easter.
Often, in the midst of Lent, we may feel downtrodden with darkness, wondering when the somber silence might end. Yet, the liturgical calendar gives us the tools not only to weather the season of Lent, but to appreciate the darkness. We journey through Lent as a people who remember the gift of Christ’s transfiguration. Whatever darkness comes, we know the Lord is light. Whenever hope seems lost, we remember Moses and Elijah stood with Jesus, that the Law and the Prophets stand together with the Gospel for the redemption of all creation.
To fully participate in this journey, to find the stability offered by this order, regular worship is vital. There are many reasons to come to church, with community formation and worship of God chief amongst them. Another reason, though, is that the rhythms of the church year also help to orient us in the midst of the chaos of our culture. We walk through Lent as a people of the light, as those who know the brightness of hope even in the darkness of our ashes. The liturgical calendar helps us to live that reality.
I invite you to attend church this Sunday, as well as throughout Lent and to Easter. Participate in this journey with a community. Take time to worship God. And especially, find yourself formed by the light of God in the midst of the darkness that so often seems to inspire doubt within us. As we heard just a few weeks ago, the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Come live that truth with us at CLC or one of our partner churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Come discover the goodness of God with the people of God. Come share the hope that all creation might know God’s light, and join the work of the church alongside Christ Jesus to help make that hope a reality.
Throughout these first few months in my first call, I've learned much about church life, about the role of the pastor, and about the wonderful people that make up Christ Lutheran Church. Our community is incredibly close. We share a familial intimacy for which I'm deeply thankful. Recently, our numbers have been growing.
The surprising part of this development is that this growth is not connected to any sort of membership drive or evangelism effort. Some who've joined retain some kind of connection to the church as former attendees or relatives of current comrades. Others showed up as new worshippers looking for a faith community and chose to become a part of ours.
When these new friends talk about why they decided to become a consistent part of life at CLC, each mentions something about our outreach ministries, even though most are not direct recipients of such ministries. In particular, people mention the establishment of a new campus ministry at Radford University called Highlander Lutherans and the vision for a new ministry for people of all intellectual, social, and physical abilities called Across the Spectrum.
Part of what this indicates is that people are inspired to serve in a church that is serving selflessly. Campus ministry is tons of fun and can inspire new life in a community, but it also represents a transient population, most of whom often depart after a few years. Across the Spectrum seeks to meet the needs of an unmet population within the New River Valley, but a key part of that mission includes support of people already part of other congregations. In other words, these ministries in themselves aren't huge growth opportunities for membership.
Yet, as others see these kind of commitments, they've decided to come live life alongside the people of CLC. Church life, at its best, is about service in the image of Christ, the ultimate selfless servant. Through the development of two ministries at the heart of this congregation's passions, others have glimpsed Jesus in an infections way, such that they too want to be a part of this movement of outreach, service, and mission.
Sometimes, there's no paradigm for growth other than the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through the life of the church. Thank God for that!
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.