For the western church, this past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. It is the day that marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. It begins 40 days before Easter (not including Sundays). Lent is a time set aside to focus on the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. It is characterized by repentance and may include such practices as fasting and other spiritual disciplines.
Many churches commemorate Ash Wednesday with a service focused on repentance. The service itself is usually quiet and solemn, in keeping with the theme of repentance. It frequently culminates with people going forward and the pastor or worship leader making the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead with ashes. As the leader does this, she might say something like “repent and believe the gospel.” Or sometimes he will say “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Repentance is nothing other than turning from one direction and heading in the opposite direction. It is dying to self and rising with Christ. A change of direction that includes a change of allegiance.
The service I attended was in the morning so I walked around the whole day with this peculiar looking black mark on my head. Several times I had a polite person let me know that I had smudged myself and might want to take care of it.
But of course I did not want to remove the mark. Throughout my day, each time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I was reminded of who I am.
Better yet, I was reminded of who I was and who I am in Christ.
And I was reminded that this acknowledgement of my identity is a process.
I have been adopted by God in Christ. As with any adopted child, I must let go of my old identity and begin to live into my new identity. Or, to put it slightly differently, I must put to death my old self, the self that is attached to sinful practices, and I must put on my new self, the resurrection-life self given to me by Christ. This life is a gift of sheer grace, but a gift that is also a task. As the great German theologian Karl Barth wrote, “When one is called to discipleship, one abandons oneself resolutely and totally.”
That sounds so easy in some ways. Until I start looking at all the habits and practices that I need to let go of. Until I begin to see the loyalties and loves that compete with what should be my ultimate love: God.
This dying is not for the faint-hearted.
But dying and rising is the rhythm of the Christian life. Dying and rising is what Christian identity is all about. Ash Wednesday is nothing other than a focused time of what we should be practicing all the time: dying to self and rising to new life in Christ.
This is our true identity. This is who we are in Christ.