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From Ashes to Life

Then Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

- Matthew 16:24-26

With the observance of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent with its emphases on repentance, penance, and self-denial began. Lent is actually no one’s favorite season. Who wants to spend weeks repenting, trying to correct wrongs, and denying ourselves? Interestingly, the fact that none of us likes the practices of Lent is precisely the reason we need to participate in the season. In every generation and time since the Fall, human beings have been separated from God through pride, selfishness, and every other form of sin. Lent is an excellent reminder that we are not who or what God intends.

Many of us observe Lent by giving something up, and we have all sorts of things we opt to forego. Some of us give up the same thing every year; chocolate is a common choice. Others of us try something new each year: social media, alcohol, television, or some such. The Eastern branch of Christianity calls on all its members to give up meat, dairy, eggs, alcohol, and marital relations. That branch of the Christian family is serious about Lenten self-denial.

Two or three years ago during a class on martyrdom, we were sharing accounts of people who had been placed in the position of choosing Christ or choosing to live. The choice is made more often in the world today than most of us realize, and the discussion eventually turned to whether we are prepared to forfeit this life for Christ’s sake. It’s a hard question, one we thankfully are unlikely to be required to answer. One participant shared that, if he were really sure that he would be dying for his faith (as opposed to a political or ideological purpose), he thought – hoped – that he would be willing to give up his life for Jesus Christ. All I could think was, “Wow. I can’t even give up a meal for Jesus.”

Realistically, we cannot truly answer such a question because we have never been tried. We all like to hope we would be brave enough to stand up for our faith amidst persecution and martyrdom, but none of us can be absolutely certain we would do so. What Jesus told His disciples in the passage above is hard enough for us. At least martyrdom would be quick. Denying ourselves and losing our lives to Christ are a lifelong endeavor.

As I was thinking about Lent, inevitably my thoughts and prayers turned to what I should give up. The standard text for Ash Wednesday is from the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 6, in which Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how to fast, and what to treasure. In other words, the substance of Lenten sacrifice strongly suggests prayer, fasting, and giving money. Indeed, all three of these have been part of Lent for hundreds of years. Frankly, these three practices are supposed to become habits of Christian life all the time. Yet, even in this, we need to be reminded. Knowing the purpose of Lent, knowing why we are called to repentance and self-denial, helps us accept sacrifice and then stay the course throughout the season.

The purpose of Lent is to prepare our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies for the Resurrection. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the palm branches waved on Palm Sunday last year. But if we think about it, Palm Sunday wasn’t Jesus’ real victory. On Palm Sunday, the Jews welcomed the Messiah, the Savior Who would displace Rome, reclaim the Jewish kingdom, and reign from King David’s throne. In other words, Palm Sunday was a victory in the world, a victory over political and military powers. Those high hopes, represented in the palm branches waved during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, are turned into ashes.

Many of the things we believe we must have in this world, many of the things we consider so critical and urgent, belong in this world and not in Christ’s Kingdom. This world matters. God cares about our lives and our needs. The Spirit gives us dreams, and the Lord has plans for each of us. But eventually, our lives – all that we believed so important and necessary – are reduced to ashes. Then what remains is the Resurrection. The Resurrection matters because it is the pathway to eternal life, the event through which mortals receive immortality, and it is the most important fact in the whole of Christian life and teaching. (Truly, it’s the most important fact in the whole of creation and for all of history.)

Thus, the question for each of us is this: what needs to occur in each of us to prepare us for resurrection to eternal life in Jesus Christ? Do we today – this day, right now – reflect Jesus Christ in our demeanor, thoughts, and activities? When Jesus rose from the dead, He arose after living a sinless, sacrificial life, and none of us meets that standard. However, we are supposed to be striving for the holiness and purity of Jesus in our own lives. This is the process of sanctification, of purging sin and impurity, thus making us more like Christ and less like… sin.

So, when we think about self-denial in Lent, we ask ourselves questions such as: what am I trying to accomplish with my Lenten sacrifice? What am I seeking from Christ? What barrier have I placed between Christ and myself? These are the important questions for us to ask ourselves and to ask Jesus in prayer. One thing of which you can be sure, if you ask the Spirit of God to show you your sin – your weakness, brokenness, disobedience, and such – He will. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Lent can serve to deepen and strengthen our relationship with God and, in so doing, sanctify us more fully to reflect God to the world. Self-denial is intended to break – or at least weaken – the sin that binds us and keeps us from living fully in Christ now. The Lenten sacrifices we make are an exercise in self-control to be sure, but our sacrifices should also be lessons in Christ-dependence. In other words, if our sacrifice is something we can do under our own strength and power, then we’ve missed the point of our salvation for today. We are sanctified by the Spirit when we cannot accomplish what we need to do with our own determination and by our own strength. Those things we deny ourselves should be those things which are obstacles to our fellowship with Jesus Christ, things within us that serve as barriers to abundant life.

Isn’t it odd that two of the three foci of Lenten self-denial deal with worldly abundance? Fasting and giving to the poor necessarily mean less food and less money. We are being asked to give up abundance so we may have abundance. That is the paradox of Christian faith and life. Self-denial is the denial of the desires of sin in us, not the denial of the Kingdom riches God is eager to bestow upon us. Jesus said He had “food to eat that His disciples did not know about.” (John 4:32) Our God is more than able to supply your needs, and He has no desire to deny you the abundance of His life and His Kingdom. Indeed, our Father is pleased to give us His Kingdom.

That is the final purpose of Lent – to expand our horizon to embrace the Kingdom of God, not just the world in which we live. The third emphasis in Lent is prayer, our connection to our Father and to all that He wants to give us, first and foremost Himself.

The fact that none of us actually enjoys Lenten sacrifice and self-denial reveals that we have not yet tasted the riches of the heavenly banquet. There is more for human beings than this physical life. Dying to self is hard. But rising with Christ is glorious beyond anything we can even begin to imagine. Lent prepares us for a foretaste of all that God has in store for us.

What stands between you and Christ? The riches of the Kingdom are freely given to us when we let go of our worldly treasures and reach for Christ in glory. Deny yourself the life that leads to death, and open your hands, your heart, your mind, and your soul to receive the immeasurable treasures of life that God has for you.

In Christ –

Rev. Elizabeth Moreau

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