A few years ago, Dr. Peter Berger, the preeminent sociologist of our time, came to Christ Community for a conversation about religious faith. After eloquently expressing the formidable plausibility challenges of faith in our late modern western world, Dr. Berger was asked if he considered himself a Christian and if so why? This more personal question seemed to take the towering intellect and prestigious academic by surprise. Dr. Berger paused for a moment, then pensively looked up and said, “I do consider myself a Christian.” Another thoughtful question emerged. “Dr. Berger, Why are you a Christian?” Dr. Berger then pointed out his belief that something occurred over 2000 years ago on Easter morning that cannot be explained away, something that had spoken hope into his life and to the world. For Dr. Berger, an empty tomb is what made all the difference.
As a faith community on Easter morning we once again peer into the empty tomb and hear the Gospel writers hope-filled words, “He is not here, He is risen!”
Do we grasp with heart and mind the massive significance of those words? As we prepare to celebrate Easter, let us be reminded that we are Christians because we truly believe there was an empty tomb. The Apostle Paul banked his entire life on the bedrock truth of Jesus‘ bodily resurrection. For Paul, the very crescendo of the Gospel was “the fact Christ has been raised from the dead….” (1 Corinthians 15:20) Peering into the empty tomb of our Lord and Savior who conquered death makes all the difference in our lives and our world. Not only does the empty tomb point to our own resurrection from the dead and a joy-filled eternity with our risen Lord, it also speaks loudly to the importance and meaning of the vocations of our present daily lives.
Writing to the local church at Corinth, Paul concludes his masterpiece chapter on the bodily resurrection with an exhortation of living the resurrection life in our daily work. Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) As we prepare to celebrate the glorious good news of Easter, may our hearts be filled with a renewed hope that there is life beyond the grave, that as image bearers of the one true God, we are never ceasing spiritual beings with a grand eternal destiny in the New Heavens and New Earth. Let us also be reminded that our lives here and now in this small moment we call time, really matter. Peering into the empty tomb, may we hear and heed the words of the Apostle Paul encouraging us to live resurrection lives each and every day wherever God has called us to serve. Paul writes to the local church at Colossae, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24) Resurrection hope not only greets us at the grave, but also on Monday when we enter our paid and non-paid workplaces.
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.
Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?
But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?
That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.
Alaska and Lent
Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.
When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.
But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.
In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.
So much work
But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?
It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.
And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!
Then we saw it
And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.
I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.
Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.
We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.
And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.
Lent and Easter
And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.
For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.
Our hike toward Easter
We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.
Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.
Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.
To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.
If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.
With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.
And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!
Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?
It feels so weird for someone to be touching my forehead. That was the overwhelming thought racing through my mind the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service.
I was a seminary student and had started attending a wonderful evangelical Anglican church plant on the North Shore of Chicago. For someone like me who was raised attending churches where the Christian calendar was not emphasized, Church of the Redeemer was a whole new experience. I loved it, but it also felt strange and different. And no more so than on that first Ash Wednesday service. (That is until a foot washing service later that year on Maundy Thursday, which is the Thursday before Easter. But that’s another story for another post.)
I just remember thinking: I like Jay, the pastor. I have gotten to know him. I have shaken his hand many times, but now he’s touching my face and rubbing grimy ash on it. I think this is cool? But also so strange.
Now if you grew up in a Roman Catholic church context or in a Protestant denomination with a higher liturgy—like a Lutheran, Methodist, or Episcopal/Anglican church—the whole ritual of Ash Wednesday may seem as normal to you as attending church on Christmas Eve. But maybe you’ve still wondered why we keep this tradition and what it is actually about. If you didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday, you may wonder ifit is even right for Christians to celebrate it.
So what is Ash Wednesday all about? Where did it come from? Why do (should) Christians celebrate it? What is the meaning and significance of the ashes?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is the six-week season (40 days, not counting Sundays) culminating in the celebration of Easter. Churches were already observing this 40-day season of preparation and fasting by the AD 300s. The widespread practice of people receiving ashes as part of this Wednesday service dates to at least the 8th century, if not earlier. (You can read more about Lent here.)
In his excellent and practical book Living the Christian Year, Bobby Gross explains that the dust and ashes symbolize “our creaturely mortality and our moral culpability” (127).
Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a physical, tangible, enacted way of reminding ourselves of our mortality (we are dust, we will die) and our need for a Savior (we sin, we need forgiveness and healing).
There is nothing “magical” about the ashes. Rather, they are an outward sign and symbol of sorrow and repentance for sin. They are a sign both of our mortality and of our intention to die to old ways and live a new life in Christ.
Gross goes on to point out: “Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the season [of Lent]: humility, simplicity, sobriety, and even sorrow” (LTCY, 128). A theologian named Alexander Schmemann described Lent as a “bright sadness.” According to Schmemann, Lent is like “…walking in a still-darkened valley even as the morning sun lights the top of the mountains around us” (LTCY, 129).
There is darkness, yes. We must acknowledge and repent of the darkness—in ourselves and in our world. That’s what Lent is about. But hope is on the horizon. That is the feeling and tone that Ash Wednesday sets for Lent. As we embrace the truth of our mortality and brokenness on Ash Wednesday, we are able to more fully rejoice in the hope of the resurrection on Easter.
Ash Wednesday at Christ Community
At Christ Community the Brookside and Leawood Campuses offer Ash Wednesday services. The Brookside service includes singing, prayer, a short reflection, with the “imposition of ashes” (that’s the part where someone rubs ash on your forehead). The Leawood service is a quiet contemplative service of reflection and examination. Limited childcare is available at Leawood with REGISTRATION.
Here are few questions people often ask about these services at Christ Community:
How long is it? About an hour.
Do I have to receive ashes if I attended? Will it be weird if I don’t? No. We know we’re all coming from different places with Ash Wednesday. You are more than welcome to attend the service and just observe while others receive ashes if you’re not comfortable with receiving yourself.
How long should I leave the ashes on my forehead? It’s up to you. You can wipe them off as soon as you get to your car after the service or you can leave them on until they naturally wear off. Or anywhere in between. Just know if you sleep with them still on your forehead you might have a little ash on your pillowcase in the morning. 😉
Is this a service I can invite friends, co-workers, and neighbors to? Yes! Especially if they have grown-up in a tradition where Ash Wednesday was a part of their regular practice but have not participated in a long-time. This could be a great opportunity to invite them back to church. For others, who have not experienced the church, you could invite them to observe and learn about the meaning of a practice that millions of Christians around the world practice every year.
Whether Ash Wednesday services have been a part of your life from an early age or you’ve yet to ever experience one, we’d love to have you join us this year and receive the invitation to remember that we are “dust and to dust we will return” while also anchoring our hope afresh in Jesus who makes beautiful things out of the dust.