Marked by the Cross
…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Dear People of God,
As I write this, we are a few days away from entering the season of Lent, forty days (excluding Sundays) marked by the cross on our way toward Easter.
This Wednesday, western Christians of many traditions gather in worship to confess our sins, read scriptures of repentance, and receive a cross of ash on our forehead as a sign of our mortality. As the cross is traced on our foreheads, the minister recites the words of God’s curse in response to human sin: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
From the point of view of a culture that values optimism and positivity, this all seems gloomy and pessimistic. After all, who wants to spend their time thinking about mortality and sin? And who would choose to wear a symbol of that death upon their forehead? From the point of view of faith, however, this is a time to set aside the masks of virtue and self-sufficiency and to see things as they truly are.
This way of seeing is neither pleasant nor easy. Like Adam and Eve, we would prefer to hide our sins and failings, to shroud ourselves in unsatisfactory coverings of our own making. But while such coverings may disguise the damage for a time, they do nothing to address the underlying problem. In fact, such denials of our sinfulness only make the problem worse. No effort of our own is able to deliver us; our only hope is God’s activity centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only by being taken up into this story can we be set free from sin and death. Only in the “Word of the Cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) do we find salvation.
It is easy to lose sight of this, especially during the season of Lent. All too often, rather than taking the invitation of Lent to see ourselves as we actually are, we instead twist it into an opportunity to manufacture better coverings of our sinfulness. Disturbed by our own lack of self-control, we cover it up with token fasts of chocolate or coffee. Disturbed by our own lack of prayer, we compensate by attending an extra worship service or two. Disturbed by our own failure to share our faith, we post pictures of ash crosses or inspirational quotes. Rather than confess our complicity with the sin that captivates us, we use Lent to shore up our masks of self-righteousness.
But God is not so easily fooled. Adam and Eve could not hide their disobedience from God, and neither can we. Our very attempts at hiding expose our sinfulness, for they show our refusal to trust the God who creates us and gives us everything we need. And so God’s Word of the Cross comes to us in a twofold way. First, it exposes our sin and confers the death which necessarily follows: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Second, it proclaims God’s forgiveness and gives life which has no end: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25) Rather than cover over sin with half-measures, God’s Word of the Cross puts us to death and raises us to new life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)
Therefore, as we enter into this season of Lent, do not take it as an opportunity to shore up your righteousness, but rather rest under God’s Word of the Cross for you. Set aside the masks and coverings you have built for yourself, and let Christ and his righteousness be your garment. Do not fear the greatness of your sin, for the mercy of your Savior is greater still.
Your brother in Christ,