Set your face – the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
A day of repentance. The beginning of Lent.
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Perhaps the real meaning of Lent is found in this passage from Luke 9:51-62. Lent is about us turning and setting our face toward the cross of Christ that he bore, and the one which he calls us to bear. Jesus’ harsh words in vs 62 may actually be self-talk. Perhaps he is drawing into his inner thought life, his prayer life, and acknowledging that from this point forward, the journey will not waver to left or right, at least not for him. All of the apostles will abandon him in the garden, even Peter who swore he would never desert Jesus (Mark 14).

The structure of Lent, with forty days bookended by Ashe Wednesday and Easter, is certainly reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism and 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). This harkens back to the periods of 40 found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the story of the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights (Gen 7:12). Moses went on the mountain of the Lord for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). The spies, including Joshua and Caleb, spent 40 days spying out the Land of Canaan as the Lord instructed. When they returned with ten giving a bad report, the Israelites decided they would not go where the Lord was trying to lead them. And so God said that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness for forty years, one for every day spent spying the land. (Numbers 14) In fact, Moses’ life is marked by three periods of forty years – the first growing up as a prince of Egypt, the second in Midian tending his father-in-law’s flocks, and the third leading the Israelites toward the promised land. Forty signifies transformation, a shifting in way of life, a laying aside the old and taking up the new.

And that period of forty begins with one step. That is the point here. Ash Wednesday is that one step for us, the beginning of the journey of transformation for this year. It is worth noting that at his baptism Jesus did not set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He seemed to wander randomly from town to town, with intermittent trips to Jerusalem for the festivals, for three years.

The beginning of his earthly ministry was in a sense the start of his path to the cross. Even so, a second decision was needed. There came a time when all that he was doing and saying up to that moment would coalesce into one singular vision – the cross. The cross represents Jesus’ final confrontation with self-centered power. Ash Wednesday (as figured in Luke 9:51) represents the commitment to walk that road and not turn back.

Repentance is a turning from one posture and direction in life to another. Repentance from sin is turning from a life focused on serving only self to a life directed toward serving God first. Jesus himself received the baptism of repentance from his cousin John. What this means, at least in part, is that Jesus was repenting of – turning away from – his life as a carpenter focused on his family and community obligations in Nazareth. Instead, he turned his face, not specifically toward Jerusalem, but more broadly toward the ministry of the Messiah who came to proclaim in word and work the inrushing of the Reign of God.

As we begin this Lenten journey, may we join with all who have followed the Christ, turning once again away from a self-serving life and choosing instead a life that embraces all as we are embraced by God. We enter anew into a process of transformation. We recognize that the life we have been living does not work. We turn away from the destructive habits (behavior and thought patterns) that have shaped our lives. We set our faces toward the New Jerusalem – the City of God that is descending, even now, as God seeks to dwell in our midst and redeem and restore all things.

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