Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Mark of the Cross

Happy Ash Wednesday, everybody!

Oh, I know...Lent isn't supposed to be happy. Lent is a time for repentance, for abstinence, for fasting, for giving up. Most of us think of it as a difficult journey of sacrifice. But the truth is that I look forward to Lent the way some people look forward to Easter, or even Christmas. Do I give something up for Lent? Sure I do. Is it hard? Absolutely! But no other spiritual discipline has brought me as close to God. The sacrifices I've made for Lent have enriched my life so much that for me, Lent is something to be celebrated.

We talk about what we will give up. Some people give up meat, or dairy, or chocolate. Some give up smoking, or coffee, or sex. Some even give up Facebook. Whatever you give up, it must be meaningful. It must be something that comes between you and God. Last year, I gave up self-deception. My life was so profoundly changed that even today I am experiencing ripples from that decision. Some people take something on - a new spiritual discipline, perhaps, or a volunteer opportunity. Whether you decide to take up a new cross or lay down an old distraction, make sure that the objective is to clear the pathway between you and God. 

In 2011, I posted about the Lenten service I attended. The meat of that text is below - it is as relevant now as it was then. I hope your Lent is meaningful, and that it leads you closer to God.

Receiving the Mark
On Ash Wednesday the Christian world begins its wilderness journey with Christ in commemoration of his forty days in the desert. At my church, the Sanctuary is quiet as we come forward in long, solemn lines to receive the ashes. Before me, I hear the ministers whisper about how we are all made of dust and must therefore return to dust – exhorting us to repent and believe what the Gospels have taught us. I pray the prayer of contrition, confess my sins before God. I stand with the rest, my forehead bare, waiting. Knowing that the season of Lent begins in that moment, when the minister’s finger draws the midnight-black cross on my skin, marking me as a follower of Jesus, as one who stands in solidarity with the Son of Man in his long suffering, his work for human-kind, and his violent death on a rough piece of wood. In addition to the imposition of the ashes, we are to think and pray and choose something to give up, or some discipline to adopt to mark the forty-day journey through the wilderness.

If you make a sacrifice, it must be meaningful. It must be something that comes between you and Christ. Something that ties you to this world and keeps you from focusing on Kingdom-business. Some give up meat. Some give up liquor. Some give up sex. Some give up coffee, or cigarettes, or chocolate. Somehow, I cannot imagine coming to God’s altar and laying down coffee or cookies. It must be meaningful. It must be something that I can hardly bear to part with, something without which I cannot imagine my life.

But honestly, there is nothing I have or want that seems good enough. I wait with the others and I remember how I stood before the church and read the words of the Fifty-first Psalm earlier in the evening. There is no acceptable sacrifice except hearts that are broken, and spirits that are crushed. God wants to make all things new. He wants to enter empty vessels and fill them. I receive the Mark of Christ, the Body and the Blood of Christ, and then I go to the altar and I pray in the words of the Psalmist from so long ago –

Create in me a clean heart, O God; renew a steadfast spirit within me… Restore me to the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Hide your face from my sins and do not count them against me. Create in me a clean heart.

I came away feeling emptied, ready for whatever the journey brings. I am here, Lord; we can walk together.

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