Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Approaching Ash Wednesday

Jesus calls us to follow him. It’s one of his few commands repeated in all four gospels (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:27; John 1:43). Christians are followers, that is disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple is a demanding calling as Jesus also commanded that his followers mimic him by taking up their own crosses (Mark 8:34). The details of what the way of the cross will be for one disciple will differ from another (this is a lesson from John 21), but for all disciples the way of the cross is costly. In order to face up to that cost we are invited to keep attentive to the example of Jesus. So that we might be strengthened in our determination to be faithful we are instructed to consider Jesus and his cross (Hebrews 12:1-3). The seasons of the church’s year assist us in being attentive to Jesus. Christmas, for example, draws our eyes to the wonder of the baby Jesus - God becoming human flesh in the humble vulnerability of a tiny child.

Looming fast on the calendar as you receive this Witness are the seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, each drawing our gaze to Jesus and deepening our devotion and love for him. These seasons are particularly intensive in directing us to Jesus and the cross. The forty days of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Palm Sunday, are our opportunity to imaginatively walk with Jesus on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem – a journey which he knew would end in death, yet which he deliberately chose to begin and to complete. In real time this journey of Jesus took longer than 40 days, but 40 Lenten days for us resonates with biblical times of testing through journeys: Noah and the Ark, Israel in the Wilderness, and Jesus in the Desert.

When we engage with the season of Lent we signal to ourselves and to God that we are seeking to better understand the sacrifice Jesus made through his death on the cross. This sacrifice was not being the unfortunate and accidental victim of a violent regime, but the sacrifice of submitting his own will to that of the Father, knowing that this would mean denial of self to the point of suffering violent death. Giving up chocolates or alcohol for Lent is a good thing, symbolising our resolve to deny self for the sake of Christ. But the point of Lent is embracing discipleship which goes beyond denial to death. Only through death to self can the life of Christ fill us completely (Ephesians 3:19).

The life of Christ is able to fill us because his sacrificial death on the cross achieved something for us which no amount of sacrifice through denial and death can achieve. In the simplest terms, ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). From the first human beings through to each reader of the Witness, our wrong-doing has broken communion between God and humanity. On the cross Jesus Christ took our culpability for that wrong-doing, made it his own, and repaired the broken communion. ‘Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with human sinfulness, so that in him we might be made one with the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Thus the journey through Lent with Jesus is more than a poignant engagement with his resolve to suffer for our sakes. It is a journey to the cross where the single most transformative event in human history takes place. We deepen our attention and commitment to this Jesus – the unique Saviour of the World – as we enter imaginatively into the final week of Jesus’ life, the week we know as Holy Week. Palm Sunday is the turning point between Lent and Holy Week. Geographically Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem ends with his entry on a donkey into the Holy City, but emotionally and physically Jesus’ journey to the cross takes on new intensity. On Maundy Thursday we relive Jesus ‘Longest Night’, beginning with re-enactment of his Last Supper. On Good Friday we watch again from the foot of the cross as Jesus dies for us. Since each gospel provides detailed accounts of the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ life there is plenty of material to give content to our services of reflection and prayer on Good Friday.

By 3 pm on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion he was dead. A great pause then enters the reflective journey with Jesus which has begun at Ash Wednesday. Jesus is taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. The next day in our calendar is known as Holy Saturday. There are no stories told in any of the gospels about the events of this day though there are hints that the disciples kept themselves well out of sight of the authorities in Jerusalem. The body of Jesus lay alone in the tomb. All was quiet with the world.

By contrast the Day of Resurrection, Easter Sunday, bursts with energy: a moving tombstone, angels, and people approaching and leaving the tomb signal a great commotion! It is right to make a joyful noise to the Lord in our celebrations on Easter Day, for the tomb is empty. The Lord is risen – He is risen indeed!! In the season of Easter which follows we celebrate the many facets of the resurrection of Jesus: victory over sin and the devil, vindication of Jesus as the Son of Man, exaltation to the right hand of God in power, vanquishing of the power of death over humanity, but mostly we celebrate the fact that Jesus is alive.

To follow Jesus is not to follow a sad, long dead man. It is to walk with the One who draws alongside us, opens God’s Word to us and is known to us in the Breaking of the Bread (see Luke 24:13-35). Our journey through Ash Wednesday, Lent and Holy Week reminds us of the cost of discipleship. Through Easter we are reminded of the joy of following Jesus. Our attention to Jesus through these seasons of the church’s year is underlined in these words: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

(Also appearing in this month's Witness - the bi-monthly magazine of the Diocese of Nelson).

No comments: