I am born and bred a Baptist. I think you know where I am going with this!! Ash Wednesday? Lent? Advent? Epiphany? Apostles Creed? Nicene Creed? I grew up never hearing of such things. It was Bible alone, baby. Really, not a bad thing. Make me choose, if I had to, and I would choose the way I grew up and the deep love affair it gave me with the Bible.
But the downside was that it kept me isolated from the wisdom of the church as it through the centuries and millenia lived out its faith. Prayers, celebrations, seasons, remembrances, preparations and the wonderful gift of the Church Year are all so helpful. And around each of these is gathered multitudinous volumes of spiritual insight and reflection. I was the poorer for not knowing of these resources. And it still grates me when well-meaning and sincere Evangelicals write over all these assists from fellow travelers in Christ the appellation “Roman Catholic.”
The formula is “if the Roman Catholics do it, then we don’t.” And so a lot of Christians in my tradition do not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. But there are few seasons I find so meaningful as the church across the globe together says to itself, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In one sense, we are re-evangelized. Mourning for sin takes on a new urgency as the church throws at me voluminous resources to urge me to deepen sorrow for sin and remember I am but dust and to dust I will return, to flee sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
In our 35 minute noon service yesterday, I called the people of God to not sleep but awaken and follow Christ into his affliction. We remembered the three episodes in Gethsemane when Christ asked the disciples to watch with him but each time found them asleep. Asleep at a time such as this? They had lost mastery of the body, and like Eve in the Garden, what pleased the body guided the soul rather the other way around. Lent is a time to go back to Gethsemane and stay awake. Lent is a time to return to the Garden and not take of the fruit. It is a new opportunity to bring this corruptible flesh under the reins of the Word and the Holy Spirit that we might be led to where Father wants us to go.
Then I quoted some of the last words of Adoniram Judson. “Few there be that die so hard.” He suffered greatly in his final days before death. Great pain. But the whole of his life was dying and dying hard. The depth to which God asked him to go stuns the mind. I think Judson is an example of how far a man can go in suffering before his loses his very humanity. He tested the limit, lived on the edge. For a time he went to a place where no one could follow him. Some would say he was mad for a period of two years. But God drove him into the wilderness, into the darkness where there are no earthly supports – none. Under such the human flesh breaks, unless God sustain a man. But at what a cost! How beastly the suffering.
We must say a new “no” to self. Lent is tasting that word “no” in a new way, loving that word, finding in that word hope, seeing “all” in “no.”
As parishioners came forward I took the ashes from last years Palm Sunday palms and marked their foreheads with the words, “Dust thou art, o man, and to dust thou shalt return. Flee sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Who, in his right mind, would walk the martyrs path of that church aisle and say to me, “Mark me with the sign of death”? And yet they did, the crazy lot of them. They stood there like prisoners of Christ in single file, bound in the fetters of love to be marked for the slaughter. It was all I could do not to break down and simply weep at the sight. I marked them and then sent them out to die.
I do this because I believe in the resurrection.