Lent, Ash Wednesday, and All Saints #2
To participate well in an Ash Wednesday service one has to understand the season of Lent. To understand Lent one has to see it within the context of the entire Christian year. So the church calendar is where we must begin in order to worship “in spirit and truth” on Ash Wednesday.
Eugene Peterson writes, “When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context in which our stories find themselves.”
The practice of following the Christian calendar rests upon this fundamental conviction of which Peterson speaks – our lives are apart of a larger story that encompasses the entire world and its history. This grand narrative is, of course, the biblical story. This Genesis-to-Revelation epoch begins with the Triune God creating all things from nothing out of his effusive joy, including mankind in his image. Following God’s creation comes man’s fall into sin where human beings rebel against God with ruinous consequences to themselves and the earth. But God then counters man’s sin by incarnating himself in the person of Jesus Christ. It is through Christ and his work that mankind, along with the physical creation, are redeemed. And all of this dramatic action finally culminates in a new heavens and earth where God’s people dwell, delighting in the glory of his presence. In Romans 1 the Apostle Paul call this story “the gospel of God,” the good news.
But how does Paul’s gospel intersect with the church calendar? Bobby Gross, in Living The Christian Year, helps us see the connection: “To embrace Jesus is to be reconciled to God and to consciously step into his Story. And to follow Jesus is to have the shape and purpose of our lives conformed to the shape and purpose of his…. In other words, we want to inhabit the still-unfolding Story of God and have it inhabit and change us. And this is exactly what the ancient liturgical habit of living the Christian year helps us to do.”
Okay, but again, how? How does the ancient liturgical practice of following the church calendar help us consciously step into the gospel, conforming us to Jesus and the shape and purpose of his life?
There are both theological and existential answers to this question. Let’s begin with the theological (and move on to the existential in the next blog). The central theological doctrine of the New Testament upon which all others rest – that believers in Christ are united to him by faith and share in his death and life – is also the foundation for the practice of the church calendar. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” For Paul, a Christian is someone whose death for sin has been endured already by Jesus and also someone into whose heart God’s life has exploded.
The Apostle Peter speaks of this dual, death-and-resurrection blessing as God having “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) and even as Christians being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Because Jesus has joined himself to us in his death on the cross, Jesus can make believers into participants in his communal life with God the Father and God the Spirit.
Since Christians are united to Jesus in his death and life, then it makes sense to structure our corporate and individual lives of faith around His life as he lived it on the earth. This is what the church calendar is – a structured sequence of 6 seasons built around holy days that turn Christians’ attention in worship and daily life to the primary events in Jesus’ life: his birth, baptism and transfiguration, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit. The goal of the church calendar is to, year after year, immerse Christ-followers’ hearts, bodies, and minds in the divine actions that have been undertaken on our behalf.
As we respond in faith to our rehearsal to these redemptive events by mirroring God’s movements in our worship and devotional practices – his waiting (Advent), giving (Christmas), telling (Epiphany), dying (Lent), rising (Easter), being poured out (Pentecost) – we are drawn more fully “into the grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2) and are “conformed to the image of God’s Son.” (Rom 8:29). Our lives are shaped by Jesus’ story.