Christ’s Death Lives in Us
A Homily for Ash Wednesday
Lent begins today. And, as always, it comes at just the right time. If you’re at all like I am, you’re falling-down drunk with the cares of this life, stoned out of your mind with never-ending, day-to-day worries. If you’re like I am, you need time to sober up, time to get your head clear and your feet steady under you again. Given our state, we’re going to need time to prepare ourselves for the unimaginable shock of Good Friday — and the even greater shock of Easter Sunday. Wonderfully, that is precisely the time the church has given us in this season.
Over the next forty days, we have the chance to pull ourselves together. With whatever measure of faith has been graced to us, we have the chance to get ourselves ready for what’s to come. We have the chance to give ourselves with renewed energy and seriousness to fasting and to almsgiving, to self-denial and to sacrifice. And once again, as we have done many times in the past and will do many times in the future, we have the chance to make room for God at the heart of our lives, both by what we give up and by what we give away.
In this season, we will not only fast occasional meals, familiar luxuries, and shallow entertainments. We’re not doing this for self-improvement or our health, after all. Like Christians have been doing for 1600 years, we will fast from hasty words and needless chatter, from contemptuous and mistrustful thoughts, from angry and bitter feelings. We will fast from unwarranted judgments about ourselves and about others. We will give up self-hate. We will give up impatience with our children. We will give up fear of strangers and hatred of our enemies. And we will give away food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless. We will visit the sick and the imprisoned. We will bury the dead with honor. We will give instruction to the ignorant, counsel to the doubting, comfort to the sorrowful, gentle reproof to the erring. We will forgive those who’ve wronged us, and bear with those who trouble and annoy us. We will pray for everyone and everything (Aquinas).
After his baptism and before his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus fasted for forty days. He fasted not to provide an example for us, but to make it possible for our fasting to work good in us. He fasted so our fasts need not be merely religious. If we live this season in the spirit of Jesus’s fast, then we will find we are being put in touch with our real (as opposed to our imagined) needs, and with our absolute (as opposed to our conditional) neediness. We will also find ourselves being made increasingly aware of our neighbors and their needs, needs which — we suddenly will realize — are simply more important than our own.
By grace, we will remember during this time that we are creatures, that our lives are not our own. The truth is, we exist only because God calls us into and upholds us in existence. As Scripture says, it is in him that we live, move, and have our being. If for some reason God were to decide right now that we are no longer worth sustaining, we would immediately cease to be. And what is more, we would never have been (Jenson).
By grace, we will remember during this time that we are dying creatures, that we are nothing more than dust — strangely animated and self-aware dust, to be sure, but dust nonetheless. On this day, especially, as the poet says, “Our egos and esteem are held up/to the brutal mirror of the finite.” On this day, especially, we suffer a hard reminder: “Know that you will end/The world will continue without you.” In the words of the prayerbooks, “From dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
We need not make friends with death, but we do have to come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to get out of life alive. In my friend Jason Goroncy’s wise words:
… death may indeed be, in some sense, life’s enemy. But it’s an enemy that, like the strange promise of resurrection, appears to be woven into the warp and woof of life and so of ministry in God’s world. And whereas it sometimes may be an enemy from which to flee; at other times it may be the enemy we must embrace as an expression of love’s final hope.
By grace, we will also remember during this season that we are sinful creatures, that we are going to need, again and again, throughout the course of our lives, to be forgiven and reconciled. Experience tells me that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to hear this truth rightly. We almost always hear talk of sin as a moral judgment. We imagine that admitting we’re sinners is an acknowledgment that we’ve had bad thoughts, that we’ve done bad things. But that misses the mark entirely.
We are called not to be moral (by the standards and orders of our society) but to be holy (as God is holy). Sin, therefore, is not the failure to live a good, clean life but the refusal to let God’s goodness come alive in us for the good of others. Sin is whatever stifles or frustrates the fullness of joy in our neighbor’s life. Sin is the unwillingness to take the risks that loving our enemies requires. Sin is anything and everything that is done unlovingly, anything and everything that is done in bad faith, anything and everything that leaves us hopeless. As St Paul says, “whatever is not of faith is sin.”
I had a dream recently in which several friends and I decided, during a church service, to share our worst faults and offenses with one another. One by one, we took turns giving voice to our inward ugliness. But as we shared, I had this growing sense that something was terribly wrong with what we were doing. And, just as I realized it, a pastor stepped forward and called everyone to pray a blessing over me. That dream reminded me that there’s all the difference in the world between exposing my faults and confessing my sins.
I doubt you and I know our faults as well as we think we do, but I am certain that we do not know our sins as well as we think we do — especially those sins that most seriously grieve God and that most deeply wound our neighbors. We need God to make us aware of them. “Only God’s favor makes it possible for us to know and acknowledge our sins” (Hauerwas). Knowing that we’ve sinned and how we’ve sinned is already a beginning of salvation.
Above all, by grace, we will remember during this season that we are beloved. We cannot even begin to grasp what it means to be the creatures we are if we do not realize that in Christ God has taken our creatureliness, our mortality, and our sinfulness as his own. Lent is not about my creaturely mortality and sinfulness considered on their own terms. Lent is about what happens to my creaturely mortality and sinfulness as they are assumed by Christ and transfigured, taken up into the divine life and made holy with God’s own holiness. God would rather not be God at all than to be God without us. Precisely as the sinful, dying creatures that we are, we are loved. And precisely as the sinful, dying creatures we are, we are called in the Beloved to enjoy God and to work with him for the good of the world.
Sharing in God’s work means living Christ’s death and letting Christ’s death live in us. This is the lesson Lent teaches. And it’s a defining theme in the writings of St Paul. Take, for example, what he says in Colossians (3.4): “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Or what he says in Romans (6:3): “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” In 2 Corinthians (2.14–16), Paul expresses the theme in one of his most difficult, haunting images:
14But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
Paul seems to have in mind a Roman triumph — the triumphant parade through the capitol after an emperor or general had won a great victory. In these moments, the entire city would gather to celebrate, welcoming the victorious leader and his troops with flowers and incense, songs and dances. The troops would bring in their train all the treasures they had claimed, and all the prisoners they had captured, prisoners now shamed in defeat and doomed to a life of slavery or death. Startlingly, Paul imagines himself and his ministry team as God’s captives, spectacularly paraded in a triumphal march before the world, the stench of death — Christ’s death — heavy on them, “the aroma of Christ” their only glory.
Paul returns to this image in 2 Corinthians 4.8–12:
8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.
In a moment, we will come to have our faces marked with ashes in the shape of a cross, signifying that we are sinners for whom Christ died and saints who have died with him. This ashen cross reverses the first mark we read about in Scripture, the mark God put on Cain. Having murdered his brother, Abel, in a jealous rage, Cain is met with a curse, and he cries out to God in protest (Gen. 4.13–16):
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
We continue to live in a world “east of Eden,” a world in which brother turns against brother, fathers turn against sons, strangers turn against strangers, and neighbors turn against neighbors—a world of unbroken cycles of violence and unbreakable systems of injustice. But we live in the midst of that very world as the Body of the once dead, now risen Christ. Cain fled from the Lord’s presence, marked by God for his protection. We go out into this world as the Lord’s presence, and the mark on our bodies proclaims we are already dead.
Christ’s death is alive in us; therefore, we can, again and again, in ways conscious and unconscious, die to ourselves. We can die to our ambitions. We can die to our judgments. We can die to our fears. We can die to our prejudices. We can die to our rights. We can die to our common sense. The wonder of it is, we find ourselves just by losing ourselves in care for our neighbor. And we “come alive” just in the experience of dying to ourselves. “Death is at work in us” to be sure. We are, as St Paul says, “always being given up to death for Jesus’s sake.” But just so, life is at work in others. And to be dead with Christ is to be hidden in his embrace of the Father, at home in the very heart of God.