I’m a pretty terrible Christian. As people are posting on social media about what they’re giving up (sometimes social media!), what they’re adding, what they’re doing to try and practice some penitent self-control through the season of Lent, this fact becomes all the more clear.
I am really bad with self-discipline. Like, seriously bad. I rebel against any and all constraints put on my freedom — even just to follow through with the basic necessities of life and have things scheduled on my calendar. Oh, I can do reasonably well for a few days, but then it’s almost always back to what suits my mood and desires at the time.
So Lent is a difficult time for me. I know we’re supposed to be repentant, feeling sorrow for our sins and contemplating Christ’s sufferings. But most of the time, I’m just feeling guilty for being so weak as to not be able to participate in the season as I think I should, and like everyone else does. I don’t think that’s really the kind of sorrow I’m supposed to be feeling. More like self-pity.
And if I’m honest enough, it’s not just during Lent. That’s just when it’s most obvious. I’m selfish, greedy, irritable, contentious, lazy, prideful…I’m sure many readers can come up with a few more things I am! I can never seem to make this Old Adam to stay drowned. He has such control over my mind and body. Like Paul says, “I do the things I don’t want to do, and don’t do the things I know I should do (and even want to do). O wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?”
Wretched, indeed. But the reality is that I can’t drown my Old Adam. I can’t make myself stop sinning. Just when I think I’ve got one under some semblance of control, a bunch more pop up somewhere else. Or worse, I eventually screw up and go right back to doing exactly what I didn’t want to do anymore. Ugh! I can’t even come up with proper repentance for just 40 days. And what pitiful amounts I do manage to muster up still come with a smug pride telling me that at least my repentance is better than someone else’s. I went to church on Ash Wednesday. I got ashes on my forehead. I am being good and Lent-y. At least for a few moments.
But then it hit me, as I was sitting in church with ashes fresh on my forehead and crumbling into my eyelashes, listening to the Gospel lesson that tells us not to look gloomy and disfigure our faces (some translations add, “with ashes”) so that our fasting may be seen by others.
Wait. Even while I was trying to be piously gloomy and penitent, I didn’t disfigure my face. I didn’t put ashes on my own forehead. I didn’t come up with my own repentance. That was imposed on me by my pastor with ashes in the smudgy shape of a cross —like the sign of the cross that marked my forehead (and my heart) long ago at my baptism. That wasn’t just my pastor’s hand waving over me, that was God marking me as one who had been redeemed by Christ the crucified. Those weren’t just my pastor’s words spoken over me, it was God’s Word that baptized me into His name, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, adopting me as His own dear child.
The gifts of God come to us from outside of us (the fancy Latin term there is “extra nos,”). We listen to God’s Word read in our worship services so that it can come into our ears from outside of us. (Incidentally, that’s also why we use the liturgy — because it’s more of God’s Word and who can improve on that?!) Baptism, the Lord’s Supper…more gifts from God through His Word tied to means, all come to us from outside of us. We even believe that the faith itself to receive these gifts isn’t of ourselves, but also a gift from God. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…”
Today, God’s Word came to me from outside myself through the voice of his servant, along with the ashen reminder that, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” On Ash Wednesday ashes are imposed on our foreheads precisely because we cannot repent on our own either. And then, repentant, our sins are absolved with the Gospel and faith receives the Word with the bread and body and wine and blood — even more forgiveness in our mouths, in the Lord’s Supper!
In our new, absolved, baptized life in Christ, then, we can wipe off that reminder of the dusty and dead Old Adam so that our fasting and repentance is not seen by our neighbors but only our new lives of love and service for them. We have been given life not for ourselves, but for them, after all — to serve them and put their needs before our sinful need to be seen as good, Lent-y Christians. God knows what’s in our hearts. He’s the One who has given us our new, clean ones.
Thanks be to God that He has saved us from making even repentance about us, and that He imposes it on us today with the ashen reminder from His own Word.
“Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”