The Good News of Ash Wednesday

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

On one level, Ash Wednesday is pretty depressing. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Thanks a lot! While we were receiving ashes yesterday, the choir sang the whole Psalm 51, part of which was the Responsary Psalm for the Mass. “I was formed in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ouch!

And, indeed, if Ash Wednesday is pessimistic in this way, it is only highlighting something that runs throughout Christianity. Christ has to die on the Cross? And he tells us to pick up our cross and follow him? And to follow the path of poor in spirit, and those who weep.

And, truth to be told, if you read the Gospels, there’s an awful lot of threats: “Whosoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22); “it is better for you to go into life maimed, then having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dies not, and their fire shall not be quenched” (Mark 9:44). If we don’t “clothe the naked,” etc., Jesus says he wil tell us, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Don’t blame this on the Old Testament: there is nothing in the Old Testament remotely like the threats that Jesus himself makes in the Gospels.

Even the happy story of Christmas holds within it the claim that we need a savior. Whatever Psalm 51 means when it says, “in sin did my mother conceive me,” it seems that we all are in trouble if Jesus doesn’t “save” us. A person can be forgiven for asking why this “gospel” is “good news.”

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It might be helpful to focus more clearly on that claim that Christianity is good news. The essential message of Christianity is not that we are sinners, but that we can be better.

Think of it this way. “In sin did my mother conceive me” might mean some bad news: you thought you were okay, but it turns out, there was something horrible you didn’t even know about yourself. But the “news” here might be of a different kind. It might be more a definition of what we mean by sin. “Sin” doesn’t mean “what you thought was innocent is actually horrible.” It might just mean “your natural state” – with the indication that somehow God can do a whole lot better.

Perhaps, for example, it’s just “normal” for people to call each other fools, to be grumpy and prickly, and lustful, and materialistic, and lazy. Hold off on the word “sinful” for a moment and go ahead, make the excuse: that’s normal. It’s hard for us to be any different. Go further, and say, it’s really unrealistic to expect us to be any better. We can’t be expected to be any other way. We’re just born that way. “In ‘situation normal’ my mother conceived me.”

The Good News is that our “normal,” our “it really can’t be any way,” is not the way it has to be. The claim is not that normal is bad. The claim is that Jesus offers us something better than our normal.

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The same can be said of “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The first part (that we are dust) is perhaps mysterious, but the second is not. We are all going to die. That is not a strange dogma that Christianity made up, it is simply the truth. The question is not whether we’re going to die. The question is what we’re going to do about it.

In our culture, of course, the main answer is that we should do our best to forget about it. “Forget, man, that to dust you shall return: cram yourself with mass media, run around frantically, and whatever you do, don’t think, lest you remember that to dust you shall return.”

But again, rather than condemning that attitude as “sinful,” let’s just say that’s normal. What else can we do? Death is a pretty awful idea. Of course we run away from it. What else can we do?

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“There’s nothing we can do about it.” That is our “natural,” “normal” situation. We can’t do anything about death, we can’t do anything about our moral nastiness.

This is not news. This is normal.

The Good News of Christianity is that Jesus Christ can do something about it. With him – but only with him – we can do better. We can love, and live forever.

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How do you manage the “bad news” of “normal”: of impending suffering and death, of moral weakness?

eric.m.johnston

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