“And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain—For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
I am a history buff and naturally I enjoy “the reason behind the song,” especially church hymns. “Amazing Love” is one of my favorite hymns. It was written by Charles Wesley in 1738, it was penned by the famous hymn writer during a time when he was physically ill and spiritually dry. Trapped in an extremely legalistic, perfection based doctrine, Charles became greatly aware of his inability to “measure up” to the spiritual yardstick her had set for himself. Returned from a very unsuccessful missionary trip to the “colonies;” he was broken, ill and depressed. He was urged by friends to jettison his rigid legalism and accept grace. While his health deteriorated, he re-read Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians. (An excellent, practical commentary in my opinion!) After reading it, he felt the spiritual assurance that all was well and that he would be safe. Resting in the assurance that no matter what state he was in, God would be with him to overcome temptation, doubt and fear. He became convinced that God could, and would, do exceedingly abundant things for him, above what he could even ask or think. He also found himself at peace while rejoicing in the love of Christ. Two days later he wrote “Amazing Love.”
Personally, February is a very busy month for me. In addition to Valentine’s Day, Susan and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. So not only do I have church stuff to do, I need to get shopping! Without a doubt, the overarching theme of February is love. But there is also another date to consider: one that frames our understanding of a greater love: God’s love for us. That date is Ash Wednesday, falling on February 26th this year.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, Let us briefly explore the significance of both. Growing up, Ash Wednesday was something my boyhood church never celebrated. We never “received” ashes, never attended worship, while barely acknowledging the season of Lent. Why? The biggest objection to those events involved the question: were they even Biblically sanctioned? Friends of mine who were members of other Christian faiths often “gave up” things for Lent, especially meat on Fridays. Ash Wednesday say many of my friends arrive at school with large smears in their foreheads, which I was told were ashes. At the time, I found this very unusual. How could exterior signs and things I gave up make me more acceptable to God, I wondered? As I read my Bible and matured in the faith, I made it a point in my Christian walk not to place my trust and faith in such outward signs.
So as a pastor in a church where we do celebrate Lent, and recognize Ash Wednesday, I pose the question: WHY? The answer is one of reflection and preparation. It focuses and redirects us as a church on the importance of the events that lead up to Calvary. Perhaps the greatest distinguishing feature of prior meanings assigned to Ash Wednesday is one of intent. It answers the question of why Jesus came to earth and why his ultimate destiny as the God-Man was the cross. The answer is one we must look at from two perspectives: Christ’s and ours. Let’s start with Christ’s. This theme ties nicely into the theme that dominates February: LOVE. Jesus Christ went to the cross on our behalf because he loves us!
So why do we receive ashes? Without a deep and thoughtful consideration, we are left with an incomplete picture of Christianity. Jesus Christ went to the cross on behalf of a sinful and disobedient people. In Romans Paul declares: “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Ashes, fasting and other spiritual disciplines bring no power on their own. Yet in their practice, they often are a powerful reminder of our need for redemption. Receiving ashes is a sobering reminder of our falleness as humans. Sometimes we need to hear the message that we are not as good as we think; all of us need more of Christ. There is nothing that can bridge the gap between God and humankind except for Christ dying on our behalf.
As you celebrate the gift of love in this month, I challenge you to remember the greatest love, which is Christ’s love for you!
Yours in Christ,