For Christians around the world, the life and ministry of Jesus—his birth, his life and death, his resurrection and ascension—are enacted and re-told through the celebrations and seasons of the church year. The Christian church prepares for his coming during the season of Advent. Anticipation grows for the triumphant entry of God into the world in Jesus on Christmas Day, while the season of Epiphany, that follows Advent, invites all to see God at work in the life and ministry of Jesus. Each season of the church year is filled with expectation, discovery, and hope.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. And unlike the celebration of Christmas day or the expectation of the season of Epiphany, Lent is a solemn season for the Christian. As part of the Ash Wednesday worship service, ashes are imposed on one’s forehead in the pattern of a cross. The imposed ashes are the remains of the Palm Sunday fronds from the previous year—fronds reminiscent of those waved triumphantly as Jesus entered Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha—but that now serve as a reminder of death and mortality. The Jews of Jesus’s day believed he entered the city as the coming King; they could not see how his reign would be from a Roman cross.
The imposition of ashes reminds us of our materiality: “From dust you come and to dust you shall return,” reads Genesis 3:19. We share the same substance as that which will one day cover our bodies in death. For the Christian, the Lenten season is also meant to remind us of a shared mission with Jesus to walk the path toward death. It invites us to lose our lives as we wait in hope to find them renewed, resurrected with Jesus on Easter morning.
Whether or not one actively observes Lent, the season can serve as an invitation to evaluate our own lives and to examine the invitation of Jesus to “die” with him. We can enter this “deathly” contemplation with the anticipation of resurrection on Easter morning. But Jesus’s path to resurrection was the path of laying down his life, a path of relinquishment, and a path of radical service. This path often feels entirely unnatural, for it takes us in the opposite direction of self-preservation.
Yet Jesus said that those who seek to follow him, those who pursue the kind of life he offers, the kind of life he modeled in his own self-giving, requires the opposite of self-preservation. It asks those who follow to “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him” (Mark 8:34). Following Jesus will lead us all to the Cross, and will lead us all to the place of death. “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” Of course, regardless of the gods we follow, we all share in this destiny; like Jesus, we, too, will die. The pressing question, in light of this common destiny, is how shall we now live? How shall my life today respond to the reality of death and the invitation of life?
The contemplation of our mortality during the season of Lent can lead to a renewed, hopeful, and restored vision for living. As we embrace our mortality, we have the opportunity to let go of the false things we think make up our lives. We let go of thinking that the accumulation of wealth, power, and resources make up a good life; we let go of thinking that busyness makes us important; we let go of thinking that our personal safety and security are to be preserved at all cost. And as we let go, we can embrace that which makes for life—the relationships and the people with whom we share this earthly existence. More than that, we can put others’ interests before our own, and freely offer our lives for the sake of others with the hope that what is done on behalf of others for the sake of Christ will indeed endure beyond our deaths.
The season of Lent is the season of dust and ashes. It is the journey with Jesus toward the cross. The way to resurrection life is indeed not by saving our lives, but in losing them. Whether one observes Lent or not, the call to “take up our crosses” is issued to all. But, in this paradoxical call to come and die, lies the invitation to find life indeed.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.