On Ash Wednesday this year our congregation celebrated a, “Happy Ash Wednesday.” The mood is a bit hard to create when one receives ashes on the forehead, with the analysis of past and future, “Dust you were, and to dust you shall return.” But the prospect of dying into Christ—and that is what Ash Wednesday is ultimately all about—is nothing to weep about although that is not the original idea behind the ashes or observing Ash Wednesday as a period of penitential fasting and other disciplines. In a culture where certain kinds of seasonal foods are on demand year-round and something vaguely similar to real grass is rolled out in the midst of winter to create summertime feelings, it may be less than surprising how we feel compelled to try and manufacture happy emotions in Passiontide, but the purpose and perspective of Lent and Passion week lead to other kinds of self-examination and listening to the Word of the Lord.
Among the saddest words we ever utter are, “What a blessing he could die,” or “She is better off dead than alive.” Of course, she, if she died in faith, is better off in direct contact with her Lord than she was here on earth, but that is not usually what we mean with those words. We mean life had gotten so miserable on earth that from every perspective the death liberating us from sin also, in this case, has liberated the person from genuine horrors of suffering, rejection, and vulnerabilities too heavy to bear. For some, the crushing burden does stem from the recognition that they themselves have fouled their own lives and the lives of others; guilt and shame as well as hopelessness are even driving some of our fellow citizens to end their lives at their own hand. For most people in human history, death has been a terror, even for those who trust in Christ, for the Devil strengthens our sense of sinfulness and failure to live the godly life in the shadows of death. Today in North America, however, our not wanting to die may be less from the fear of death and “the beyond” and more from the love of the idols of this life which are giving sufficient security and satisfaction to make being with the Lord only relatively alluring.
Indeed, Lent was invented to aid our honest confrontation with the failure to meet the mark God has set for truly being a human being. Passion Week should place squarely in our faces our doubts about God’s promise and our ignoring of His presence, our defiance of His lordship and our denial that He is the source of all good. For in the best of times the joy of forgiveness itself tends to mitigate the intensity of our sorrow over our failure to fear, love, and trust in Him above all else. We need a somber space from which to sense the crushing weight of having the tablets of stone fall on us. We profit from suffering the piercing sword of the Spirit which divides our rebellious thoughts and actions from the new creature in Christ that has come forth after dying at the font into His tomb.
Can we fully experience the joy of the Festival of the Resurrection if we do not seriously stare boldly into the sad state of our own faithlessness to Him who promises to be faithful even when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13)? If we have not felt a tremor of shame and guilt, is it still possible to feel the thrill of the fresh breeze blowing through Christ’s empty tomb into our stale world from the shalom-filled ambiance on the far side of His grave, the blessed macroclimate enjoyed by the angels? They are there rejoicing over the freshly brewed life of every newborn child of God. For the newborn children of God know they have suffered the death of the old identity as sinner and recognize the pain of giving up idols that were pleasing and precious.
For the newborn children of God know they have suffered the death of the old identity as sinner and recognize the pain of giving up idols that were pleasing and precious.
“Experience makes the theologian,” Martin Luther observed, and he meant theology begins in the midst of tentationes—Anfechtungen—the assaults of doubt and defiance that foster shame and guilt, or perhaps a self-defeating defensiveness over against God’s Law. We have the advantage of hearing what people like Luther have said about the experiences that make life sour and repulsive, creating dread and fostering despair. His sorrow and panic as he felt the hands of an angry God close around his throat fled only when others gave him words for expressing his feelings, his fears, his yearning for peace.
The Holy Spirit drew him into conversation with the psalmists. From them he learned to cry out, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have fed me day and night while people continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? My soul is cast down within me.” And from Psalm 42 he also learned to say, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my help and my God. By day the Lord dispatches His goodness, and in the night, I sing to Him and pray to the God of my life.” Luther left the black hole of despair behind him, but he never lost that sense of deep sorrow over his defeats at Satan’s hands in the daily battle which continues the confrontation reported in Matthew 4. He knew Paul’s “Law of God” had triumphed over the “law of sin” that still tried to assert it in his daily decision-making and action. Therefore, after the agonized exclamation, “I am a wretch. Who will deliver me from this body that has fallen under death’s sway?” came from his lips, the joyous acclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord… So, there is no longer any condemnation for those, who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:22-8:1).
In the crucible of our own contending with our own deviations from our Lord’s way and truth, both as they attack us from without and as they subvert us from within, we can die a thousand deaths alone—or repeat our baptismal death with Christ. For sinners, death is the only way out, as Paul observed in Romans 6, and Lent, culminating in Passion week, is designed to guide us to the daily drowning of the Old Adam that opens up the Lord’s tomb as the gateway to life. Real life begins in the Easter of our everyday hearing of the promise of Jesus, and it presumes the real-life death of repentance and sorrow over our straying in small ways and sometimes large from His way to life.
It is difficult to attain this delicate balance between sincere sorrow for continuing straying from Christ’s path along with suppressing his truth and the overwhelming joy and delight that the hope of resurrection and the here-and-now presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit nurture in us. This task of the preacher we label distinguishing the Law and Gospel. It is easier to accomplish in conversation with individuals than it is to cultivate in those who hear the proclamation in the congregation. Nonetheless, these conversations between pulpit and pew, perhaps especially in Lent and Passion Week, can focus sharply on our little moments of unfaithfulness, on the triumphs of our self-willed concessions to the Devil, and our stubborn and obstinate ignoring of God’s voice in our way of planning tomorrow. And at the same time in this kind of conversation with the congregation, the preacher can proclaim how this season of sorrowful self-examination remains only a preparation for the resurrection of the baptized disciple, the reborn child of God, our true identity.