Yesterday was Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the Lenten season leading up to Easter – the high point of the Christian year. As a day, it is intended to be a solemn reminder of the brevity of our lives – from dust we came and to dust we shall return – and so the ashes smeared on our heads as a marker of death. But it is also a reminder of the inconstancy of our faith.
Those that welcomed him into Jerusalem waved the branches and shouted in celebration, ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’. They thought, as we think, that Jesus had come on the scene to restore their kingdom, to satisfy their hopes and aspirations, to make them have the worldly success and prosperity that had been denied them under Roman occupation.
That is not why he came.
And so it is that year by year, the same palm branches that were used to celebrate are burned to produce the ash that marks us. It is a visible reminder that the triumphant joy we feel when Jesus comes turns to dust when we realise that his agenda is not our own. That his agenda is not the satisfaction of our aspirations. His goal is not to make us have worldly success and prosperity.
His kingdom, he said, is not of this world.
And so we are marked. The ashes symbolising the reality that the journey of discipleship is the downward journey into death. Sanctification is about letting go, giving up, losing. It is about dying to our own plans for our lives, about relinquishing control of our destiny, about committing ourselves body and soul into the hands of the Lord.
To be sure there are joys, there are triumphs, there are blessings, but these things are beside the point. They are the things that attend our salvation, but they are not salvation itself. They are the graces that sustain us along the difficult downward path, but they are not the path. If any would come after him let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow him – and where is he headed? He is headed to the cross. To shame. To humiliation. To suffering. And yes, to resurrection! To victory! To triumph! But these cannot be had without the other. We cannot pass over the painful downward path.
May God grant us grace to tread it well.