The Gift of Ashes

 
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This cosmic collision between light and dark that will soon be upon us last took place 73 years ago in 1945!

No, I don’t speak of World War II, or of Axis and Allied nations. Rather, I speak of Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) falling on the same day; Wednesday, February 14, 2018.

I’m already bracing for a social media meme that goes something along the lines of, What better way to say ‘I Love You’ than with the gift of ashes? I say that I am bracing for this as if it’s cringe-worthy, but I’ll confess right here and now that if I find these very words on the front of a greeting-card I’ll buy it right now and give it to my wife on February 14!

But in all seriousness, or at least more seriousness, this coming together of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is a strange thing! Now, I’m not going to suggest that the overlap of these two observances causes followers of Jesus—or anyone else for that matter—any kind of existential crisis. But I do want to ask this question: Is there a way to reconcile the overlap of these two celebrations?

One is a day of professed love and gifts to the beloved. The other is a day of ashes, repentance, and remembrance of the grave. Again: How exactly will these two observances occupy the same space on our calendars much less our hearts?

There may be more than one answer to this question, but I only know of one and I offer it to you now. In fact, this same answer is twice repeated in the book of Acts.

God exalted [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior,
to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins!
– Acts 5:31

And,

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying,
“Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life!”
– Acts 11:18

Did you catch all of that?

When it comes to the Jews (Acts 5:31) – those who were the recipients of God’s promises of a Savior for them and for all the nations, repentance is a gift that is granted through Jesus!

And these same Jews who were gifted with repentance, trust, and forgiveness in Jesus came to realize that for the Gentiles also, repentance is a gift that is granted to them through Jesus!

And we know more still; namely, that it is God the Father Who out of amazing fatherly love for a rebellious world grants this repentance leading to forgiveness through Jesus. And all of this He gives as complete and utter gift to all of us who are in need of it!

Repentance always precedes forgiveness, and so repentance does always go first. But gone, abolished, put away with, undone, and destroyed are any and all notions that my repentance unlocks, sets free, or earns God’s forgiveness. For that is the language of paychecks and wages and rewards. That is language set at odds with God and His Christ and His Word!

For God won’t have it any other way. He won’t wait around for you to never earn your way to Him. He won’t wait around for you to never scrape up the wage. He won’t wait around for you to never be worthy of reward.

Instead, in love God sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior and Lord. And what was the shape of His love? He went down into repentance with us and for us (Mark 1:9-11), even though He had no personal need to! And just as from ashes we have come and to ashes we shall return (in death), Jesus went on ahead into death on our behalf (Mark 15:37). And just as He promised that death would not hold Him (Mark 8:31), so He rose from the grave (Mark 15:5-7) with the effect that all who are baptized into Jesus are Baptized not only into His death, but also into His resurrected life (Romans 6:3-4)!

This Jesus is sent out of God’s fatherly love for you! This very same Jesus grants new life eternal to you and all who trust in His gift of forgiveness. And this very same Jesus gives you one more gift that precedes even forgiveness and new life. And that gift is repentance!

God exalted [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior,
to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins!
– Acts 5:31

And,

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying,
“Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life!”
– Acts 11:18

What sweet words these are! What sweet correction to our false notions of repentance! What wonderful news for the happy reconciliation and marriage of Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday! And what sweet redemption it is of that greeting card I’m still looking to find—the front of which will read, What better way to say ‘I Love You’ than with the gift of ashes?

 

Rev. David Rufner is pastor of New Hope Lutheran Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. His B.A. in Philosophy is from Concordia University - Chicago, and his M.Div. is from Concordia Seminary - St. Louis. Beyond the horizon of church, David (along with his wife Megan, and four children) enjoys cooking, sipping bourbon, reading, parties and life with neighbors, hiking, camping, and long road trips to lands where mountains loom and canyons yawn.



 
 
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