Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ash Wednesday

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the ceremonies of Ash Wednesday and their meaning:

Q:  What is Ash Wednesday and what is the meaning of applying ashes to people’s foreheads on that day?  What reasons to churches have behind their decision to use ashes or not, and how does this custom fit with Jesus warnings in Matthew 6 about showing off one’s repentance, prayer, and good deeds? 

Ash Wednesday is the name that has come to indicate the first day of Lent.  It occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, and emphasizes the themes of sin, mortality, and repentance that carry forward throughout the season of Lent, which is a period of contemplation and often fasting that prepares for the celebration of Easter. 

The source of the name for Ash Wednesday comes from one of the customs associated with it—the application of ashes to those who attend that day’s services.  In Old Testament times, covering oneself with ashes was used as a sign of mourning or sorrow for sin.  In keeping with that Old Testament tradition, churches began centuries ago to use this as a way of marking the beginning of Lent, as it fits closely with its repentant character. 

A common tradition relating to the making of the ashes is to make them by burning the prior year’s palms from the Palm Sunday procession, and the ashes are usually mixed with a small amount of olive oil in order to achieve the right consistency for application.  Holy water may also added, such as in Roman and Anglican traditions of Christianity.  The traditional words which accompany the application of the ashes are “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” again emphasizing the themes of sin and mortality by echoing the words recorded in Genesis as being spoken by God to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin. 

In addition to the Roman and Anglican tradition, the use of Ashes is also fairly common among Lutherans and Methodists, as well as some portion of most denominations which observe the season of Lent.  A trend in recent years has been for even representatives of some traditions which have not typically observed Lent or other elements of the broader liturgical year to restore the traditions of Ash Wednesday as part of a renewed interest in the ceremonial heritage of the ancient Church.  It is rare, if not outright forbidden, in traditions which devalue ancient ceremony or reject it as merely human tradition. 

Some Christians do avoid the use of ashes at all because they perceive that it violates Jesus’ warnings about self-righteous displays in Matthew 6, while others, particularly among Roman Catholics, choose to wear their ashes for the remainder of the day after their application as a public testimony of faith in Jesus.  Others may receive the ashes, but remove them soon after in response to Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 6.  Some even see the receiving and immediate removal of the ashes as an excellent illustration that we are born sinful and deserve God’s punishment because we engage in actions which disobey God’s law, but that the sin has been washed away in Baptism, allowing all who trust in Jesus to forgive their sin to stand before God at the judgment in His righteousness and purity rather than their own death-deserving sin. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jesus' Birthday?

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the date of Jesus' birth and its significance for salvation:  

Q:  How did the Church figure out if Jesus was born on December 25?  Do we celebrate Christmas because Jesus saved us by being born? 

Many people do not realize that the date of Christmas on December 25 was never intended to be understood as a claim to be the literally precise date of Jesus’ birth.  A handful of ancient Church Fathers believed and defended the possibility that it might be His actual birth date, but the date of December 25 is more significant for its role in illustrating through the rhythm of the Church’s year the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

This begins with the common acknowledgment that the day on which Jesus was crucified was March 25.  Because it was not customary for the Jewish people to record birth dates at the time of Jesus, it was a popular belief that the date of a person’s death coincided with the date of their conception.  By this reasoning, Jesus’ conception began to be celebrated on March 25 of the Roman calendar while His death and resurrection were celebrated on the Friday and Sunday of Passover week by the Jewish calendar. 

Out of this eventually developed the complete Church Year which celebrates the date 9 months after March 25 (which is December 25) as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and through its various seasons remembers the events of Jesus’ life during the first half of the calendar and His teachings during the second half of that calendar. 

In addition, one can also look to the record that John the Baptizer was conceived on Yom Kippur, the day his father served in the Temple for the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs in the last week of September.  Luke then records that Mary conceived Jesus when Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy with John, which would be the last week of March, resulting in Jesus birth nine months later, in the final week of December. 

But, the significance of Christmas does not come because Jesus birth is the act by which He saves.  The perfect life He lived after that birth, and His death and suffering of God’s wrath on the cross in place of sinners are necessary in order for salvation to be accomplished.  His birth alone would be majestic and worthy of note, but it would not by itself be able to deliver forgiveness of sins to humanity or reconcile us to God. 

Instead, we celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the concrete event where God’s salvation first becomes visible to His creation in the person of Jesus.  In the early Church, the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement which caused Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary) was actually revered of more highly than Christmas, because they recognized that the significant event was already full and complete as Jesus was already fully God and fully human from the moment of His conception—a truth Christians refer to as the Incarnation. 

However, we celebrate Christmas because of the same significant truth, which is that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  God the Son voluntarily allowed Himself to be conceived, born, grow, and mature in the normal course of human life.  He became fully human so that by taking on our flesh He could stand in our place both in life and in death. 

He accomplished that in the events of Good Friday and Resurrection Day, but we recognize and celebrate that He began the earthly life which leads to that on the day of His birth—whether that literally happened on December 25 or not.