The Mission Highlight serves to remind us that the church is called to look outward at the world, what God is doing in it, and our part in his work. When things like Valentine’s Day and the awful killing of seventeen teenagers and teachers at a High School in Florida all happen on the same day as the beginning of Lent, what is our response as followers of Christ?
Ash Wednesday marks the forty-day period leading up to Easter, a time for us to prepare our hearts as we look forward to commemorating the conquering of the last enemy, death, by the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, Jesus – the man by whom has come the resurrection of the dead. His self-giving love has brought us life, and those who belong to Christ shall be made alive when he comes again (1 Cor. 15).
But first come “ashes” on a day that is about humility. We must embrace a grim truth about our limits. We were separated from God with no way of coming near him, let alone into his presence. We were made from dust (Ecc. 3:20), we are mortal and everything we have on this earth will end, whether after living a good long life or way too early. Each of us lives subject to the same constraints of death, weakness, sin, shame, and pain. Ash Wednesday serves as an opportunity to look at this fact – of dust – square in the face, and take time to remember that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Lk. 18: 9-14).
Humility before God, who breathed his life into the dust he shaped helps us prepare the way of the Lord inside our hearts, to make a straight and open way within our lives for the rule of Jesus Christ. Humility helps us to remember that if we have been brought into the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters, it is not because we somehow made it there on our own. It is because he stooped down to be near us. And we now have a purpose as the workmanship of God, created anew in Christ. God has good works for us to walk in (Eph. 2:4-10).
On the second point, Valentine’s Day that just passed is the first time in forty-five years that Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s. In our time, most people celebrate romantic love (eros). But there’s also family love (storge), brotherly love (philia), and God’s divine love (Agape). Philosophers and psychologists have other categories besides these – flirty short-term love (ludus), practical long-term love (pragma), and self-love (philantia).
From Jesus’ own words and actions, from his life on earth, we know that there is no greater love than agape, than when love is personally costly, self-giving and self-sacrificing. Not based on merit of the person who is loved, but rather unconditional, and based on them as an image-bearer of God. A love that is kind and generous – even to extravagance: greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13). True love willingly dies to itself in order to give life to others.
We may not all be called to go to a self-sacrificial death for someone else, but we are called to go out of our way to love, especially when the going gets hard, in our relationships, friendships, and marriages; especially when people are hurting badly and their need is greater than ours; and even when we are equally in need as the people we help (like the caregivers of the children in Malawi). And when we go out of our way to serve and love someone like this, Jesus says, “as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25: 40). In the spirit of this love, all of us are invited to come alongside the children served by Hands at Work in Africa and the team that Toby will be leading to Malawi; to come alongside them in prayer over these forty days of Lent.
The third event was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At times of tragedy, heartbreak, and outrage, whether the disaster is ‘natural’ or man-made, people will ask, “where was God…?”, “how could God…?”, and “why didn’t God…?” They demand more from people of faith. Can Christians offer at least a word of guidance and hope in the face of senseless violence, loss of life, and devastation? Would we respond out of fear, and let violence, hatred, and cruelty win? Or would we continue to bring Christ’s message of resurrection hope, light, and love to the dark places that surround us? We do not have to go far to find someone who is the survivor of a terrible blow, who needs to know that there is a God who “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds”, that he is “making all things new”, and he is doing this by uniting “all things in heaven and things on earth” in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
This is the power and work of Jesus Christ, who God raised up from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20). We, too, have been raised up and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Could our response to tragedy and disaster, whether in going to those struck by it; OR whether in going to someone else who has been struck by some OTHER tragedy or personal disaster – could it be one of the good works for which we have been made new creations in Christ? Whether or not we are not in a position to remind them directly of the grace and kindness of God, can we remind ourselves and speak to God of their pain and need – in watchful prayer? All who are bereaved and devastated by such loss and who are hurting need to know “where is God”.
As we begin by praying, we act not out of our own power or only for our own strength, but for God’s power to move. We can pray humbly for those who are in the dust and ashes of tragedy and brokenness as though their loss, bewilderment, and pain are our own, as we remember that we, too, have the same humble origins in dust. And because of the Easter event, the hope that we have, and that we can point those we mourn with toward, is glory.