A meditation for our Ash Wednesday service
Like most Protestants, I didn't grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent either, for that matter. Although I knew what Lent was and when it happened, I didn't pay it much attention until I started attending seminary. There, I met many folks just as Methodist as me who took part in these rituals I had previously considered primarily for my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.
I had just lumped Ash Wednesday and Lent in the category of Things the RCs Do Differently, like being a lot more willing to display crosses that featured the crucified Christ on them. Most of the crosses we see in our Protestant churches are empty, but the Roman Catholic Church prominently displays crosses that feature a representation of Jesus nailed to them. These kinds of crosses are usually called "crucifixes."
Later I learned there are theological justifications for the different choices. Many of my fellow Protestants say that, since Jesus was raised on Easter Sunday, the actual cross on which he died would be empty. And so should the ones we display on walls and such: They should reflect that we serve a risen Savior, not a murdered teacher.
But, suggest those who favor the crucifix, the only reason we pay attention to the empty cross is that before it was empty, someone died on it. Specifically, God's son Jesus died on it. We shouldn't be so ready to skip over his sacrifice and ignore the reality of it. This makes sense also: For Jesus to be raised, he also had to have died. In order for Easter Sunday to matter, it has to follow a Good Friday. Or an Ash Wednesday.
I see value in both ideas, and as Christians we can't really leave out either understanding. We do serve a risen Savior, but we must never forget that he rose precisely because he had earlier sacrificed his life for our sakes.
Ash Wednesday is another way we remember that sacrifice. Although we are Easter people, we live in a Good Friday world and we can't ever let the glory of Easter's dawn blind us to the darkness of Good Friday afternoon. If for no other reason than we are called to serve those who live in a Good Friday of one kind or another, we need to remember it's the reality of too much of our world. And if we get ourselves too caught up in living in our reality of the Easter of resurrection, we might forget the need to share that reality with those who do not yet know it.
Lent is our reminder that we came from that Good Friday world and that there remain many deep within it. We remind ourselves Christ sacrificed himself for us -- and for them -- and that the work of the gospel is not complete until they too know of the sacrifice, the redemption and restoration available to them in it. We can renew our commitment to follow Christ and live as Easter people, as well as renew and strengthen our commitment to bring that call to the attention of others.
In his iconic song "Man in Black," Johnny Cash lists how well off folks are in "streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes." But "just as a reminder of the ones who are held back/Up front, there oughtta be a man in black."
On Ash Wednesday, Christians, let us take on the sign of the cross to remind ourselves to be men and women in black, reminders of the ones who, through oppression or injustice or even their own sin, are those who are still held back.