The Less-Rugged Cross
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
February 25, 2009 - Today is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of that season in the historic Christian calendar known as Lent – a special season of penitential reflection, prayer, and fasting during the roughly 40 days leading up to Holy Week. The traditional Ash Wednesday service includes a vivid reminder of our mortality. The participant not only sees this represented visibly in the ashes smeared upon foreheads in the shape of the cross, but also hears it proclaimed through the Word: “Thou art dust, and to dust you shall return!” (Genesis 3:19).
The reminder of our mortality, linked as it is with the pronouncement of God’s judgment in the garden, reinforces our sinfulness. Left to ourselves, we die under judgment. Still, while the Lenten season underscores our need for continual repentance, it also anticipates the remedy for our fallen condition. The Ash Wednesday cross on the believer’s forehead is not merely conventional. It is rather brimming with the prophetic significance of that for which it stands – namely, the defeat of sin and death by the Son of God in becoming a curse for us on a Roman gibbet.
Sadly, some would eviscerate the cross of its meaning, and as a consequence, reduce the Lenten season inaugurated by Ash Wednesday to an occasion for vicarious catharsis. Rather than being a Savior – a substitutionary atonement who willingly bears God’s wrath for undeserving sinners – Jesus becomes a mere moral exemplar or some kind of New Age spiritual guru – one who “responded to the pain and suffering of his existence . . .” seeing it “as something to be accepted as a path to a deeper love of God.” Those who need this kind of Jesus are not rebels in need of forgiveness; rather, they fancy themselves (purportedly just like Jesus) fellow travelers on life’s journey in need of occasional therapy (perhaps), but mostly desirous of empathetic wallowing in self-pity. The “therapeutic Jesus” provides the felt need for succor.
Evangelicals must resist the temptation to confuse the effects of the Gospel with its essence. No doubt, those who experience forgiveness in Christ find relief from the guilt, alienation, and brokenness that attends our sinful condition. For this balm, Christians will rejoice eternally. But the cross of which the ashes are a visible symbol is not principally about making us feel better about ourselves in the midst of our “pain and suffering.” It is chiefly about reconciling the objective estrangement between God and man, an enmity caused by the latter’s transgression of the former’s holy law. For apart from this, there is no hope for the man who will inevitably turn to dust.
May the Lenten season be an occasion for deep reflection on the dustiness of our souls and glory of the cross!
Related Web Resource: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=17-02-021-v