Today the Church begins the observance of Lent. Lent is an extended period of time during which we prepare ourselves for the events of Holy Week.
It is during Holy Week that we remember and celebrate the events of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection from the dead. These events are extraordinary to us because we believe that Christ is God, God who has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real human life. God in Christ’s acceptance of a human nature was so total, so complete, that he permitted himself the experiences of suffering and death. It is because Christ is God that his suffering and death are marked and recalled with such great solemnity.
We Christians do not believe that Christ is merely a martyr who died for a cause or simply a good man who did good things. We believe that Jesus Christ is God, who out of love for us decided that he would be with us in all things, and the best way for God to do that was to accept for himself a human nature and live a real, human life- and this meant that God in Christ would suffer and die- and then in rising from the dead, show us that life in the here and now does not end in death.
Instead, death has been transformed by Christ’s passage into it as a route of access to a new kind of life.
The gravity of all this is striking, and because it is all so very important, and because we are so easily distracted, the Church invites us during Lent to make extra efforts that will prepare us to better appreciate and understand what we profess in faith to be the truth about the Lord Jesus- that he is God and man, and that in Christ, God himself experiences suffering and death.
Today, as Lent begins, the priests and ministers of the Church will mark the faithful with ashes.
The ashes are a visible sign of an invisible reality.
What does this mean?
Years ago, many of us,(if not all of us here) were immersed in water and anointed with sacred oil during our participation in the Sacrament of Baptism. These signs indicated that a great transformation had taken place and we had been recreated by Christ into what is called an “alter-Christus” (this means “another Christ”). This means that God in Christ chose us and adopted us as his own son or daughter, and he did this so that through us, other people might know who Jesus Christ is and come to share communion or friendship with him.
In Baptism we became someone new, someone chosen by Christ for mission.
That water and oil that marked us evaporated long ago, but how they marked us remains.
One day a year the Church marks us with ashes and in doing so reminds us of our Baptism, that God in Christ chose us. None of us were baptized by chance. Christ intended our Baptism. Whatever or whomever brought us to Baptism came from God and was sent by him to claim us for Christ. There is no such thing as an accidental disciple.
But not only are we reminded of our Baptism through these ashes, we are reminded of our mission. Nobody can see the water and oil that marked us in our Baptism, but they can see the ashes. Today everyone who sees you will know that you about your Baptism. They will know that you belong to Jesus Christ.
And if you belong to him, how does your life show this? Does it?
You can spend the rest of the year hiding away your relationship with Jesus Christ at home or in a faith-based clubhouse. You can justify keeping your Baptismal identity hidden away in a box built by equivocations born of the fear of just how different Christ wants you to be from everyone else. The rest of the year you can hem in your identity as a Christian with appeals to privacy and tolerance. The rest of the year you can pretend that it all happened on your terms and that you chose Christ, rather than Christ chose you. But not today. Today your faith goes public.
Bottom line is this. Christ chose you. And it is his choice that makes the difference, because in the end, all that we pretend that matters, all that we have acquired- the money, the degrees, the property… All of our goals, opinions, ideas… Even things like ethnicity and family… All this falls away. We just pass through those things like passing through smoke. We don’t take any of that with us.
In the end, the only thing we bring with us when we meet the Lord is the mark that he placed on us- the mark of our Baptism, the enduring sign that Christ chose us and that we belong to him.
That mark will measure us, judge us, and if Christ wills, save us.
So today, you are marked. You belong to Christ. You are a Christian.
Today, these ashes remind you of who you are, who you are to become, who God in Christ has chosen you to be. Today, these ashes remind us all and that who we are we are as disciples of Jesus Christ is not supposed to be some kind of secret.