From Ash Wednesday to Easter, the Lenten season beckons us to consider our mortality and sinfulness. But that inward look can develop into tunnel vision if we don’t venture up from the depths, into God’s light, to see what He’s doing in this great cosmic battle. And that’s really what we’ve been experiencing this past challenging year—and every year before it and after—the cosmic battle playing out on our home soil. In our distress, we can easily miss this bigger picture, the telescopic view of our Savior and our world, and when we do, we see more dividing lines than unity, more failure than victory.
The three movements of “A Word Spoken for Ash Wednesday” were created for the Ash Wednesday service in February 2021, to help us remember who we are as the church in Christ—and whose we are in this great battle. Take a few minutes to WATCH each movement in video format, created to help you contemplate our complicity in the problem, Jesus’s offer of absolution, and His invitation into something wholly and divinely better.
Based on Isaiah 55; Ezekiel 37:1–14; Ephesians 2–4; 6:10–20 With help from the body: Randy Bonifield, Dawn Heckert, Callie Johnson, Kia Hunt, Bobbie Jeffrey, and Emily Hobbs Video Performances: Michael Burke, Alyssa Hershey, Michelle Lee
Under the steeple steeped in truth, full of people, a darkness persists in the middle of the light.
’Cause while we the people in our pews take an hour away from news to turn our eyes on Jesus, in our flesh, we’re priming for a fight.
See, we’ve been stepped on, and the truth, it’s been dumped on, and there’s a sea of white crosses for the ones who’ve been imposed on to give their lives for our freedom.
So we lash out with lashes against the trash talk of the masses that we see as the crowd of our country, the overloud of our culture—the ones who don’t think like me. In fact, the ones who are evil, the ones who need Jesus.
And so we take our Bibles, and we flail them at our neighbors. We holler like children, “Mom, he started it!” We cry, “I didn’t do it!” And inside we seethe at the injustices on earth.
All the while— in a dark corner of the cosmos, the underworld of the universe, the serpent nurses bruises and sinks low to sit and watch the great reality, the show of earth.
He might run scared from a legion of saints from every region, arms locked not with religion but relation to the Regent—the King of kings—the Savior—as we fight a common foe.
But here? There’s just a dust up in the ranks that need to stand up, that are subdivided by our make-up and the privilege we won’t give up.
So Satan, he’s gettin’ cozy as us cretins, we just mosey on down to the mud pits he set to trap us in.
Like a sister getting fed up or a brother who won’t put up, we just bicker till we break up, we argue and we beat up God’s own image for a mockup of his kingdom.
And the image that we hold up to the world is a soul that feels so small. We have eaten and devoured the Word so much that our spirits are parched, so that our hearts dry and shrivel. But we deny it.
We might be right, but still wrong because brother against brother, and sister against sister, we leave our father and mother to fight a holy war all our own.
No grace, no irresistible attraction, no quarter for our enemies. From dust we were taken and to dust we shall return, but in the middle, we want power, we want pride, we want perfection, we want profession, we want protection, we want possessions, so in our pews, we take our eyes off the redeemer of the nations, and we set the world on fire. We set the church on fire. We reduce ourselves to ashes.
And Satan, in his Lazy Boy, kicks his feet up and laughs.
Jesus stands over our ashes and he weeps— for his church, his tears clear the air. Can you see him?
While we wager on our dreams, he fights for our imaginations. While we wheedle through politics, he fights for our ideals. While we wrestle over pennies, he fights for our souls. We fight for our philosophies, our rights, and our security. He’s not just a lover of wisdom, he’s the wisdom that loves. He’s not just the defender of right, he’s the righteous defender. He’s not just the giver of riches, he’s the giver of life.
With the earth as his footstool, his thoughts rise to the heavens, his arms reach around the universe. His word created the cosmos, yet his hands bear the scars of sinners. (That bit wasn’t Satan; we did that.) His heel crushed the serpent but was nailed to a cross. (We did that, too.)
So let me declare boldly the surprise of the gospel, the mystery of the ages, the foolishness of earth: We can be so wrong, yet still right with the Father— Gentiles share privilege with the Jews.
They’re members of the same body. They eat at the same table. They partake of the same promise.
In fact, the gospel gets better than that. Hold your hats on, my people.
See, the banquet is waiting.
You bet Satan is watching; he has turned up the volume; he’s perched on his chair to pick off survivors, to see who we’ll vote off the island. In his hand is an app that picks the winners and losers, he swipes and sows more division, he posts and scorns with derision, he manipulates the algorithm of the human mind and heart.
But Jesus, standing in our ashes, divine ruler of the cosmos, lays his sword down. He lays his stone down. He lays his body down and rolls in the dust that is us. And when he rises, the all-sufficient, the magnificent glory of God is encased in our own mingled ashes.
The Christ once held his arms out; now, he holds his hands out and he offers the bread and the wine of the banquet not just to Gentile and Jew but to socialist and capitalist, to the nationalist and the centrist, to the populist and the elitist, to the Calvinist and the Methodist, the fundamentalist and the syncretist, the anarchist and the conspiracist —and get me, church— to the rapist and the murderer, the papist, the embezzler, the racist, the ignorant, the opposition, the arrogant, the repugnant, the grumbler, the reviler, the complainer, the promiscuous, the gambler, the drunkard, and the arguer. He holds his hands out to the liar, the thief, the snitch, and the denier, invites the tax collector, the fallen woman, the self-made man and his choir. Are you worried that I’m naming you? Or afraid he’ll leave you out? His guest list includes the self-indulgent, the lazy, the jealous, the crazy, the gossip, the bully, the self-righteous, the unholy, the pedigreed, the undocumented, the worshiper of idols— and such are we. Such are we, yet he holds his hands out and invites us to unity in the beauty of our diversity to the one faith that can bind us and uphold us; he holds his hands out so we’ll know him— so we’ll know him— so we’ll know him: the Son of God.
And at the banquet there are two names on the guest list:
First, the unconquerable, the Savior, the unquenchable, the Spirit, the unchangeable, the Father—and the name we must profess is Jesus. The other label, despite our libel and our slander, is fully able to get our nation back to livin’ to get the church back to lovin’ to get our world out of the scorched-earth mud because our name is forgiven.
Come and seek. Come and see.
All across the grieving world, the Christ holds his hands out: “Come buy wine and fresh milk without cost, without price.” But while these bones, dry and parched, reach for Jesus, we look around at devastation and ask, “How shall we now live?”
In the valley of ashes, we hear a great rattling as the bones that were battling join together— bone, flesh, and sinew, every joint held with glue— every part working properly. From the ashes we rise.
As with the clay he once formed, Yahweh fashions a new body. One arm equipped most for justice; the other, more for truth. This hand, equipped for mercy, that tongue, equipped to soothe. He empowers one foot to follow; he humbles this leg enough to lead— Yahweh forms us from every tribe, tongue, and nation, every color, stripe, and creed and burns away our strongholds— from the ashes we rise.
He pumps the bellows and stokes the coals and lights a holy flame; for us, he forges a heart of flesh and reignites us again. He names love as the stumbling block, recommissions service as our crown, hammers out his holy Word so we grasp heaven and bring it down. And though we may not know how to do this, even though we disagree, this new temple isn’t just me full of God; it’s God housed in we.
The church stands when we understand; from the ashes we rise. Because as we call ourselves “blessed Christians” and also “those with a wicked bent,” we will look to our head that is Jesus to remember why we’re sent. We will think the thoughts of God and look at others through his eyes, and speak his words of mercy. The cosmic battle wages in us, but we’ll respond as the One who’s wise—from the ashes wewill rise! We will see the down and out, the CEO, the angry, the terrorized, the journalist, the common man, the woman who took our prize, the family member who makes it hard to breathe, the victim who just cries, and we’ll set aside our roar of thunder and our earthquake reprise; we will bend to embrace all these who thirst and those we once despised and engage their ears with a whisper:
“Leave the war. Come to the banquet.”
Then the trees will clap their hands, the mountains will start to sing because the valley of ashes has come to new life— what was cut off and dry now sprouts green!
At the last, Yahweh dips his finger in the ashes— see, with this new body he isn’t quite done— He says, “Put a mark of peace on their foreheads. Ah! This one is my Son.”
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.
For centuries, the church has observed a season called Lent.
Lent is a period of reflection and imitation. It’s a season of spiritual preparation in which Jesus’ followers embrace intentional self-denial, just as Jesus embraced His cross.
This year, Christ Community is commemorating Lent in a variety of ways.
Our celebration of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, with services at both our Leawood and Brookside Campuses. And next Friday, March 29, we’re honored to be hosting The Gologotha Experience at our Brookside Campus.
We’ve also chosen to engage Lent through stunning visual art on display in our Four Chapter Gallery at the Downtown Campus. This March and April, Four Chapter Gallery is presenting Cross & Resurrection, a collection of artwork created by Christos Collective that focuses on Christ’s sacrifice for us.
As these pieces have hung in our space for the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by how many congregants have stopped at each piece, taking in their beauty and exploring what they communicate about Jesus’s death for the sin of the world.
But it’s not just our congregants who are finding themselves challenged and inspired by the work. I’ve likewise found myself particularly drawn to a pair of of paintings that hang behind our stage.
The first image in the pair presents the crowd’s derision of Christ as He made His way to Golgotha. Angry accusers hound Him, while others offer to speak on His behalf, leveraging His suffering for their own 15 minutes of fame. Some seem to ignore His suffering, focusing instead on lesser distractions, while others look on with mild pity. No one in the image seems to recognize the gravity of the work that is being accomplished in front of their eyes. They’re blind to the fact that they’re witnessing the Son of Man give His life to redeem the world He made.
The second image builds upon the message of the first. It depicts Christ resurrected. In this image, indifference towards Christ continues but takes a different form. The crowd remains distracted. Some are glued to their screens, while others continue to leverage Christ to build their own platforms. Those who derided Him at His death now deride one another. They’re caught in a cycle of scorn and condemnation. Yet again, those who have witnessed a remarkable miracle—Christ’s resurrection—seem oblivious to its implications.
Art is a visual language. And it speaks to the human soul in ways that words cannot.
This is what I love about art. This is why I’m so thankful that our church is committed to the arts.
Just as Lent invites us to embrace a particular, embodied spiritual discipline (i.e., fasting) so that we might learn more about what it means to follow Jesus in all of life, viewing art grants us the ability to slow down and engage the gospel story in an entirely unique way. Art speaks to us on a cognitive and emotional level. And it can cause us to understand our discipleship to Jesus more fully, when we take time to reflect on its message.
Seeing Jesus as He truly is is key for Christian discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, we need a fully orbed portrait of who He was, and what He prioritized, and how we are to respond to Him.
While He walked among us, Jesus was perceived in many ways. The desperate saw Him as their only hope. The religious leaders saw Him as an intolerable threat. Peter saw Jesus as a political revolutionary—a militant leader, who would overthrow their oppressors and establish a Jewish kingdom. (This is why Peter wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand, and why he drew his sword at Jesus’ arrest.)
Put more plainly: Peter thought Jesus would cross out the Roman Empire, not wind up on a Roman cross.
But Jesus’ death and resurrection changed all that. After Jesus rose and spent time with Peter, Peter saw more clearly what discipleship to Jesus required.
This Lenten season, we need our vision adjusted. We must see Jesus as the Son of Man sent to die. And the powerful collection of paintings in our Four Chapter Gallery helps us do just that.
If you haven’t seen this work yet, I invite you to join us at the Four Chapter Gallery for April’s First Friday. The Gallery will be open from 5:30-9:00pm on Friday, April 5. Come at any point during that period to engage this thoughtful collection. Allow the art to speak to you. And see if God might use these powerful images to give you greater insight into how you might follow Him in the various roles and responsibilities He’s prepared for you.
If you use email to operate the logistics of your work and life, you surely see “Re:” in your inbox daily. “Re,” of course, means “in regard to.” “Re:” signals that someone has replied to an original message.
I am reminded by our pastoral staff that Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) is a season of reflection and renewal…a time to slow down and take a look at my life and my spiritual walk. A season to identify sins that hinder and recalibrate my habits in a way that leads to a deeper dependence on God.
Christians often use the days of Lent to fast from something significant in their life. This self-denial may come in the form of giving up anything from chocolate to caffeine to social media – or maybe even a more poignant sacrifice. The overall point of this personal sacrifice, according to Associate Pastor Jordan Green, is to “loosen our attachment and recalibrate our contentment.” Jordan writes that by denying our own strength or pleasure, “we might more clearly know the sustaining work of our Lord.”
As we have begun the annual observance of Lent, it is wise to take this opportunity to respond to an original message ourselves. We respond to the message ofGod’sunfailing and steadfast love – the very same love that Moses and the Israelites sang of thousands of years ago after their miraculous exodus through the parted Red Sea.
“…Who is like you — majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? …In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them…” Exodus 15: 11,13
We respond to the message of this same God who who kept covenant and steadfast love to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9) and sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to die on our behalf because he so loved the world. (John 3:16)
It’s no coincidence that so many of the themes of lent start with the prefix, “re.” Dictionary.com tell us that “re” is, “a prefix…with the meaning ‘again’ or ‘again and again’ to indicate repetition, or with the meaning ‘back’ or ‘backward’ to indicate withdrawal or backward motion.”
Each year during Lent, as we withdraw, quiet our hearts, and break our regular routine, we are invited to reflect, again. We are invited to repent, again. We are invited to recalibrate, again. We are invited to renew ourselves, again. As a matter of fact, our God of love and amazing grace invites us into renewal every day of the year, not only during Lent.
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:4-5
“In regard to” Lent, will you respond to God’s original message of love through the disciplines of reflection, repentance, and recalibration? There’s no better place to start than in Scripture and through prayer. On Easter Sunday, let us celebrate the Risen Lord our Savior with a renewed heart, mind, and spirit.
GUEST AUTHOR: Lauren McMonagle Lauren attends Christ Community Church, and this text originally appeared in her BLOG: https://rootedlauren.com/ Used by permission.