Freed From The Burden
I don’t know about you— but these last few weeks have just about pushed me over the edge. It is almost as though we went to sleep, and woke up, and suddenly found ourselves in a whack-a-mole game, assigned the part of the mole. Just when we get ourselves out from under the onslaught, just when we feel we have restored our tenuous grip on equilibrium, wham—another blow.
More and more of it comes, and at some point it is almost as though all we can do is give up trying to fight. Early on it seemed like we could either deny what is happening or gird ourselves to fight it or turn it back in some way. But after weeks of these almost daily assaults you get a little tempted—at least I get a little tempted—to simply stop resisting and let it just overwhelm me.
And of course, what I’m talking about is the evidence presented to us, nearly every day these days, of the seemingly limitless human capacity for sin, and the depravity it enables.
Now, you thought I was talking about snow. And that’s okay; I think in the weather leading up to Ash Wednesday we have been given the gift of a profoundly helpful metaphor to work with. This bizarre moment of weather has coincided with an equally bizarre set of stories that have set down with undeniable force the basic fact of human fallenness.
It is not just murders in Paris and Copenhagen and Ottawa. It is not just beheadings and murders of innocents of all faiths. It is not just the violence that springs from institutionalized racism.
It is not just the grinding despair that has taken root in the growth of inequality in virtually every sphere—local, national, global, even the sphere of the church.
It is not just any of this; it is all of it, together, every day in the world Christ came to save. And it is the fact that every one of us has a part in this, too.
We look at all this and have some understandable reactions. One is a kind of paralysis. It is all too much. Or it seems too much. We feel completely overmatched by the force of events, just like we do the snow. We retreat into a private realm. We give up on community because we cannot imagine giving our love to people who might be fallible. We become spiritual but not religious.
Another is to set up the church as a gated community of safety over and against the world. We deal with evil of the world outside by setting up an alternative world inside. We have more meetings, we organize more committees, make the inward turn. We want only the company of those who will draw that curtain with us. The stakes seem so high that differences within the church on changing views of social ethics get litigated in the courts.
And another is that we simply give up speaking about the reality of evil and the human condition of fallenness. We accept only a faith of affirmation and not of repentance. We commend ourselves for championing the marginalized and the oppressed—forgetting that the divisions we create of race, or class, or sexuality, or ethnicity, or neighborhood, or faith, any of it is only another of the variety of expressions of a single human universal—the reality that we are all fallen, and we all stand in need of redemption. We want to offer a message of vindication—forgetting that vindication and vindictiveness spring from the same root, and not just linguistically.
In my own life as a searching, stumbling Christian I see that I have fallen into all three of these errors, and sometimes more than one of them at once. And a truthful examination obliges me to say that I am part of a church, a capital-C church, the broader church, that from time to time has both allowed me and encouraged me in these mistakes, because the church turns out to be both an instrument of grace and a human creation, and that means it is not without its own capacity for error.
So what is the good news here? What is the opportunity of Lent? What is the promise it offers for getting out from under all this?
Now that I am past the midpoint of my life I find that my prayer leads me to a not entirely comforting conclusion. It is that what matters in all of this is not the ashes, not the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace. It is the form in which those ashes are given to me. It is the cross.
When we accept the luxury of paralysis, we deny the power of the cross. When we retreat into the safety of the church, we forget the purpose of the cross. And when we privilege the vindication of a few, however deserving, over the fact that everyone, including ourselves, are equally fallen and need redeeming, we betray the reason for the cross.
The classmate I admired most in seminary was a candidate for ordination who had come to the church about the most unusual way I ever knew; he had started out his faith journey as a Mennonite, and had attended a Mennonite college. He came our way through a deep appreciation for beauty, and especially liturgy; but he never left behind the clarity and the urgency of his Mennonite formation.
And so in any debate we would have about theology, in any exploration we would take together in our feeble efforts to make a coherent, consistent, systematic theology, his final test would always be: Why the cross? What answer do we give in this to the fact of the cross?
Because the cross cannot be an accident. It cannot be an option. The cross cannot be something that has selective meaning only to some, or only in some ways, or could have been done without.
If the cross is not to be just another example of the human capacity for depravity, then it must be that the cross alone stands between this overwhelming, paralyzing burden and the possibility of our true freedom in God, the freedom for which we were intended.
It is the cross that stands at the center of our understanding of how God acts on our behalf that is the unique and essential distinction of the Christian claim.
And it is the cross that alone justifies the radical vision of the Christian faith: That we are all, every one of us, equal before God. We are not equal because we are equally good. You have probably seen kicking around Facebook lately perhaps the best-known quote of the wise Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, no less true because it appeared on Facebook: “God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good.” When the Christian faith makes the radical claim that all humans are equal, what we mean is that we are all equally fallen and all equally in need of the redemption made possible, and offered to all, by the cross.
When we shrink from dealing with the hard part of that, we drain the cross of its power—and we end up proclaiming nonsense.
So yes, the ashes come from palms; but more directly they come from the bonfire of our vanities. The fire of the Holy Spirit can consume the dross of our sins only if we accept our own capacity for sin in the first place. That is the mark, the reminder, we are meant to bear.
Jesus says that disciples are to take up their cross and follow. For us, taking up that cross means setting aside and spending time in this season of Lent to grasp more fully, and repent more honestly, the ways in which we in our own ways contribute to that overwhelming and otherwise paralyzing human capacity for sin.
The offer of grace in this season of Lent is that, if we do that, then this burden will be separated from us. It will be lifted from us. It will be set apart from us by the work of the cross. And we will be free. That is the joy intended for us in Easter. But it is not without cost.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Amen.