Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Salvation's Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the official start of the Lenten Season. It is a period of 40 days of preparation, examination, confession, and repentance in advance of Easter. It reminds us that there can be no resurrection until somebody dies. In recognition of that fact, classmates and co-workers will come to school and work today wearing cruciform ashes on their foreheads, unless, of course, they’re Baptists. While most Baptists have smuggled the Advent wreath into church, the Lenten cross has largely been banished to the narthex or the front lawn, the actual practice and disciplines of Lent being left to the Catholics and “high churchers.” I actually asked a Baptist minister once why his church placed a cross with a purple-hued cloth draped on it on their front lawn when I knew his church didn't practice Lent. And with level gaze he said: "Because all the other churches in town have one; we couldn't be the only church without one!" I wish I could tell you he was kidding; he wasn't.

It’s a shame, really; a lot can be learned in Lent. The tradition is quite old, dating to the fourth century. The biblical texts usually associated with the start of Lent are all wilderness texts – the wilderness wanderings of ancient Israel, and the wilderness temptation of Christ. Part of the reason, no doubt, is the symbolic significance of the number 40. Lent has 40 days; Israel wandered 40 years; and Christ was 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Interestingly, psychologists and behaviorists say that it usually takes about six weeks (40 days) to make something a habit. Do the math. But those "wilderness times" were also a learning time, a discovery time, a testing time, a truth time. Israel learned some lessons in the wilderness they could not have learned anywhere else. Jesus learned who he really was and what he was really about in the wilderness so that, battle tested, he emerged ready to engage the demonic wherever he encountered it.

But as much as anti-Catholic bias (not to mention ignorance of church history) is to blame for the loss of Lent in the Baptist tradition, I rather suspect theology more than ecclesiology is the real culprit here. Baptists don’t do confession and repentance very well. Somewhere Baptists have gotten the erroneous and quite unbiblical idea that confession and repentance are done once, and after that they are never again revisited. Been there; done that; got the baptismal certificate. This despite the fact that the New Testament clearly states: “If we keep on confessing (Greek continuous action) our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Somewhere Baptists have gotten the idea that repentance is “saying you’re sorry,” and that once you’ve done that, you’re done. But sin is not so easily dispatched, and that is not what the New Testament means by repentance. New Testament repentance is a life-long process of bending your life back to God. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, put it this way: “Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like.” Get it? Repentance is not a “prerequisite” to salvation, it is salvation!

And that’s why Lent. It reminds me that diagnosis is a necessary part of cure; that there can be no resurrection until somebody dies; that the cross is not just Jesus’, it’s mine too; and that I must pick mine up and carry it daily if I am to follow him. Maybe if I can carry it for these next 40 days, it just might become a habit. You think?


Timothy said...

>"Baptists don’t do confession and repentance very well."

Can't say that I've heard many Baptist sermons on James 5:16 "Confess your faults one to another,..."

May God bless you during your Lenten journey...


R. Wayne Stacy said...

You're right, Timothy. My late teacher, Frank Stagg, used to note that though we Baptists like to call ourselves "people of the Book," we're highly selective about what parts of it we read!

Lenten Blessings,


Unknown said...

I would love to talk to you and possibly learn how to find that cross you talk about.

Anonymous said...

I also wish that we would observe the other seasons such as, ascension,pentecost. Seems to me without these important events we would not have received the Holy Spirit. I have never heard any teaching in the baptist church on either one of these.