Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Dust and Ash
The inauguration of Lent with its distinctive rite of penance, the public confession of personal frailty symbolized by the imprint of ash, could not be more fitting as the opening act in Christendom’s most somber season. In the majority of our churches, ashes are administered with this sobering reminder of the penalty God imposed on humanity after Adam and Eve’s disobedience: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” On this level, Ash Wednesday is a reckoning with mortality, an acceptance of the fatal compulsion to sin we inherited and cannot escape. Recognizing sin and death inherently exist in us by no means strands us without hope, however. To the contrary, it orients us to anticipate Lent’s closing act—the sacrifice that forever erased the blots manifested on our brows today.
If that were the totality of what this ritual represents, though, today would be called Dust Wednesday and our foreheads smeared with dirt. The ash limns the occasion with a second meaning we often glance over. Today, we wear the residue of incinerated fronds left over from last year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Suppose we take a moment to fully absorb what that signifies. We distribute palms to commemorate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of a long, eventful week that concluded with His brutal murder and His mangled corpse tossed in a borrowed tomb. But how it started gave no indication it would end so horribly. The palms carpeting His arrival symbolized the die-hard adoration of followers who, by Thursday, so thoroughly reversed their opinion of Him they joined the outcry for His execution. Our ashes, then, represent abandoned worship and spineless conformity. These tendencies also dwell in us and they too require repentance.
A believer need not observe Ash Wednesday to comprehend the shocking truths revealed in its ritual. Yet with or without a smudged cross, another amazing realization also sinks in. The shame this day reveals afresh to us was, is, and will always be obvious to Christ. He not only sees it. He knows it. And He knew it long before the donkey he rode into Jerusalem first stepped on a palm frond. He knew our sin, our doomed condition, our fickle emotions, and our cowardice inside and out. Philippians says He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—not just death, but punishment by death for crimes against the establishment and crimes against God that He never committed. His impunity didn’t make the transgressions He chose to carry in the flesh nailed to the cross any less real. Even the craven treachery and indifference that hung Him there weighed heavily on His shoulders and constricted His ability to breathe. Neither humility nor its extreme, humiliation, adequately describes the shame and agony He experienced of His own accord. By comparison, whatever feelings we derive from a light dusting of ashes—from mild embarrassment to contrite sorrow—can’t begin to replicate the emotional devastation that accompanied His physical torment.
Jesus humbled Himself to die, despite blanket immunity to the power of sin and death. Because we are not immune to sin and death, we in turn must humble ourselves to live. That’s repentance in a nutshell. It’s not “being sorry” or “feeling guilty.” It’s lowering ourselves to embrace the truth that without Christ, we have no means or hope of restoration to our original state of innocence. Our best will never be good enough to earn our reprieve. Titus 3.5 says, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Without the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus, we will never amount to more than a handful of dust and our finest accomplishments will eventually turn to ashes. Humbling ourselves in repentance changes all that. James 4.10 promises, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” We become obedient, kneeling in old ashes of humility to rise in new life.
At our best, this is all we are and will ever be unless we humble ourselves in repentance.
(Tomorrow: Paid in Advance)