Via Dolorosa

Tomorrow, (Sunday, March 29th), marks the beginning of Holy Week—a time of heightened reflection as Easter approaches. (My post from this time last year describes the events of Holy Week, in case you are interested.)

Some churches hang “Stations of the Cross” during this season as visual reminders of Jesus’ steps as He was led out of Jerusalem to be crucified. Each station portrays an event from the time Jesus was convicted to when He was laid in the tomb.

Stations of the Cross are often made of wood, metal, or stone and are placed one after the other on the walls of a church’s nave so that worshippers can “walk with the Savior” through the last moments of His ministry on earth. This “path” is traditionally referred to (in Latin) as Via Dolorosa, which translated means “Way of Sorrow,” “Way of Suffering,” or “Way of Grief.”

The stations can range in number from nine to fifteen. Why such a range? Some versions incorporate legendary, extra-biblical events, such as Jesus falling multiple times or a woman (Veronica) wiping His face. This is where being (or becoming!) familiar with the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) comes in handy.

Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, hangs Stations of the Cross in its vaulted nave. Haitian artist John Sylvestri created these relief sculptures—fourteen in all—from recycled oil drums.

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In the vaulted nave of Duke Chapel, Stations of the Cross hang beneath the stained glass windows. (Durham, NC)

For several years now, I’ve walked the Stations. Although Duke Chapel’s collection uses the aforementioned “creative” (a.k.a. extra-biblical) license, I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—when I come to one of those, I simply move on to the next station.

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Station 12 depicts Jesus dying on the cross.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. — I Peter 2:24 (ESV)

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Station 14, Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Walking the Stations of the Cross does not in and of itself confer special blessings, but the “journey” can be spiritually edifying. Reflecting on these last moments of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth might raise the question, “Why did He walk this way?”

The short answer—and the response upon which each of our lives personally hang—is this: Every one of us fails to keep God’s Law (i.e. the Ten Commandments) perfectly. I fail. (Translated: I sin.) Respectfully, so do you. We need a sinless Savior. Jesus was—and is, and always will be—that perfect solution. (He is fully God, but He is also fully man.) He suffered and died the death that each one of us deserves. He sacrificed His life so that we could live forever. Believe that, and we will. Believe that, and we will fall on our knees, repentant, begging God our Creator to forgive us of our sins. And He will.

Holy Week is a good time to reflect, prayerfully and thankfully, on Jesus Christ’s suffering on our behalf. Come Easter Sunday, sorrow will be turned to joy in celebration of the risen Savior.

Blessings to you during this Holy Week.

ASH WEDNESDAY

Today, (February 18th, 2015), is the first day of Lent. Maybe this doesn’t mean much to you…or maybe it does. In truth, it used to mean very little to me.

Until recently, the season of Lent seemed wholly Catholic—and I’m not Catholic. Until recently, I was very out of touch with when Lent actually started and what it represented. I knew people who gave up chocolate, swore off swearing, and even turned their back on Facebook for a season. All this self discipline seemed noble, but for what purpose ultimately?

In the last couple of years, I’ve come to a better understanding of Lent—and why it can be a valuable time of reflection for Protestants, too, as the Easter season approaches.

The season of Lent lasts for 40 days, (not counting Sundays, which are considered feast days), and represents the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan.[1]  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season—a season set aside to reflect upon Jesus Christ’s life, suffering, sacrifice, death, burial and resurrection. It is a sober time of repentance and spiritual contemplation—which, arguably, can and ought to be done any time…and often. (But on the latter point, I digress.)

Why ashes on Ash Wednesday? Ashes symbolize our mortality (dust to dust) and remind worshipers of the need for cleansing and purifying. Typically, the pastor takes the ashes on the end of his thumb and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each worshiper. While doing so, he issues the biblical reminder, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).

God spoke these same words to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and fallen into sin—which was punishable by death. When these words from Genesis are spoken on Ash Wednesday, they remind each penitent worshipper of their sinfulness and mortality—of their need to repent and be reconciled to God. Making the sign of the cross with the ashes is a reminder that through Jesus Christ’s death there is forgiveness of sins—and that by faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins there is reconciliation with God and eternal life.

From where do the ashes come? Sometimes the ashes are the burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday. Making ashes this way produces plenty of ash for an entire congregation. Like sin, the ashes are dirty and go a long way. In fact, one palm leaf can produce enough ashes for several years!

Is there biblical evidence for the rite of ashes? While the use of ashes does appear in Scripture, nowhere is there a command to observe Lent or to put on ashes. The practice itself did not emerge until the 8th century. We do, however, have the freedom as Christians to practice the putting on of ashes as a sincere means of worship—or not to practice it. Sincerity is the key. Let every man examine himself.

That being said, the use of ashes appears in several places in both the Old and New Testaments as an outward display of inner repentance or mourning. In the book of Job, for example, after God has spoken and shown His power in creation, Job submits himself to God saying, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

Daniel, likewise, turns his “face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes,” conscious of his own sins and the sins of Israel. (Daniel 9:3).

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the practice of repentance “in sackcloth and ashes” in Matthew 11:21.

These are just a few examples. There are others: 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1 & 3; Jeremiah 6:26; and Ezekiel 27:30.

Putting it into perspective: Observing Lent doesn’t necessarily make a person a Christian—or a better Christian. Nevertheless, if you see someone with ashes on their forehead today, consider it a witness that all people are sinners facing death and in need of repentance. And not only that, through faith in Jesus there is forgiveness of sins and eternal life after this life. …Thanks be to God.

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[1] Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-11

Sources for this post:
The Lutheran Study Bible
www.lcms.org
http://www.orlutheran.com/html/ash.html

Lententide

Today (March 5, 2014) is Ash Wednesday. Every year, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection that leads up to Easter. This season is referred to as Lent and is observed by Catholics and many Protestant denominations, such as Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists.

The season of Lent has been regarded for centuries as “a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope.”[1]

On Ash Wednesday, as a symbol of penitence, ashes are placed on the forehead. This “imposition of ashes” is a reminder of our mortality and our need for a Savior (Jesus Christ). …”We are dust and to dust we shall return.”[2]

May God bless this season of Lent (Lententide) … the sober season before the Hallelujahs ring.

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[1] Address from the 2014 Ash Wednesday Divine Service, Our Savior Lutheran Church (Raleigh, NC)
[2] Genesis 3:19