Union University
Union University Dept of Language


The Wondrous Ashen Cross

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

February 22, 2012 - Prior to the start of his public ministry, our Lord was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). For a period of 40 days, Christ wrestled with temptation through fasting and prayer. Luke’s Gospel records the conclusion of this cosmic, redemptive struggle (during which Jesus “ate nothing”) with a matter-of-factness that is almost funny: “and when [those 40 days] were ended, he was hungry.” Ya think?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent – a special season in the traditional Christian calendar of penitential reflection, prayer, and fasting. This period of roughly 40 days leading up to Holy Week is patterned after the active obedience of Christ. Christ is, as the Apostle Paul teaches, the new Adam (I Corinthians 15:45). That is why the life and ministry of Christ explicitly reverses the old Adam’s disobedience. The sin of the first Adam results in expulsion from the garden into the wilderness. Jesus Christ, the new Adam, begins in the wilderness as he moves toward a garden on the eve of his cross. By beginning in the wilderness, Christ fully identifies with our alienation. And His victory over temptation is the first signal of the hope of our redemption. 

Christians who observe the spiritual disciplines associated with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season seek to participate in the active obedience of Christ made possible by His passive obedience to the cross (Philippians 2:8). But like the struggles that Christ faced during his 40 days in the wilderness, the practices of the Lenten season are disciplines. At a minimum, this means that rather than being dispensations of convenience, the spiritual disciplines that prepare Christians for Easter are practices and patterns of life that make demands upon us – calling us, by degrees however small, to embody the cruciform shape of our Savior’s life.

This is why the very idea of “ashes-to-go” should be anathema to faithful Christians. The imposition of ashes on the forehead in the sign of a cross is a traditional reminder of both the disciplines to which Christians are called during Lent and the mortality in which all humans participate as members of “Adam’s helpless race.” To offer this liturgical act (as apparently some do) as a religious accessory for the random passersby on the street subverts the symbol’s intrinsic connection to the Gospel. The ashes signify the Gospel’s call to death. To offer them as an “invitation” to turn one’s “attention to the creative power of God” is to suggest remission of sins apart from the shedding of blood (Hebrew 9:22).

The cross is foolishness to the Gentiles. It is foolishness because, wielders of Enlightenment reason that we are, twenty-first century Westerners cannot imagine that the way to life might require death to autonomy. Those who offer the convenient dispensation of ashes-to-go liturgically enact a religion that demands nothing. But the free Gospel of grace “demands my soul, my life, my all.” 

Related Web Resource: http://www.uu.edu/institutes/id/evangelogia/blog.cfm?ID=37