Once Thanksgiving hits we are all about getting ready for Christmas. Some people even start before Thanksgiving but come “Black Friday” we are all in. Christmas music plays 24-7 on the radio station; Stores are decorated with their version of Christmas. TV shows, specials and movies fill the 1429 channels coming through the cable box. We make our lists, decorate our homes, start our shopping, write cards, bake cookies and plan the parties we will attend during this time of year. The Church recognizes the season as Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. We light Advent candles, sing Christmas themed songs and carols and focus on the birth of Christ. The church is decorated to let you know..we are in the Christmas Spirit!
The same cannot be said about Good Friday or Easter, which happen to be the most important holidays on the Christian calendar. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN THE LIFE OF CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH. (Note; The continual use of capital letters indicate it is really important). Only two of four Gospels briefly tell of the virgin birth of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament is silent with a reference to it only in Revelation. Mark, John, Paul, Peter, etc. tell us that Jesus was born but do not make a big deal about it. If we are alive we have all been born so its really not that uncommon. But Paul does make a big deal about the death of Jesus. He writes to the Corinthians: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified .” (I Corinthians 2:2). I would say that is a pretty limited focus. But he trumps the death of Jesus with the resurrection. If there is no resurrection than the death of Jesus does not mean a thing! And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith….And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (I Corinthians 15:14;17).
But somehow…Christmas gets more of our attention, time, resources and emotion than Easter. Somehow, the Church goes along with the world and embraces the birth of Jesus while minimizing his death. At least it does when it comes to preparation and observance.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is observed for 40 days (excluding Sundays) prior to Easter Sunday as observed by both the Western and Orthodox churches. Lent is the a season of preparation, akin to Advent, in which the individual believer and the community of faith prepare for Good Friday and Easter Sunday by fasting, worship, prayers of repentance, reflection and acts of service. Many people choose as part of their fast to “give up something” for Lent. Others also include an act of service that they do not commonly do. I have a friend who sacrifices watching television for the entire season of Lent. In the past I have given up Starbucks, playing computer games and certain foods. I have not decided yet what it will be for this year. But it is not to feel good about sacrificing something; Instead it serves as a reminder of our humanity and fallen nature, how easy it is to be enslaved or controlled by things other than the Spirit of God. It reminds us that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. It forces us to recognize sin and its effect and the need for the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus.
Ashes were used throughout the Old Testament to signify grief, repentance and mortality. We are made from dust and to dust we shall return. Jesus referred to the practice of repentance and the use of ashes (Matthew (Matthew 11:21). The observance of Ash Wednesday goes back the 10th century, initiated by Protestant churches as the first day of the Lenten fast. When we began the practice of Ash Wednesday in our church some years ago people were very skeptical and did not quite know what to think about it. Those with Roman Catholic backgrounds had mixed reactions. Some felt like it was too close to “being Catholic” and did not want to participate. Others felt warmed by the familiarity and enjoyed returning to the ritual. There were some people who did not want the ashes placed on their far heads (traditionally the ashes are put on the far head in the sign of a cross) and instead chose to have them put on the back of their hands. Over time most people have come and gotten the ashes on their far head.
The world may not prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus but the global Church does. We are counter culture. The world does not dictate to us what is important but our witness to the world is that nothing is more important than the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not even the virgin birth. And although there will be minimal acknowledgement in the world the Church will prepare for this sacred event…the most holy of days on the Christian calendar, which commences on Ash Wednesday.
Our Ash Wednesday service begins at 7:30 p.m. It is a contemplative service that lasts approximately an hour with several prayer stations which people participate in at their own speed. It is a time that we are “alone-together” in silence and reflection, prayer and meditation. We invite you to join us.
What do you think? How does it make you feel?