Ash Wednesday

Christian life and ministry are not exempt from pain and sorrow

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February 22, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

Every year liturgical churches around the world unite in spirit to prepare their hearts through a season of Lent to receive the Risen Lord on Easter. From the moment the ashen cross is placed as a symbol of mourning, penance, and mortality, believers become ambassadors of Christ carrying His cross into the worlds they occupy. But, in this season of liturgical life, the act of carrying the cross should not be considered as a mere symbol of religious affection or participation. In fact, the sign of the cross should be a constant reminder of the meaning of Jesus’ death for our lives long after the mark of the ashes has faded away.

Today’s reading in 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 is a powerful reminder of the dispositions that should occupy our hearts and minds as we carry with us “in the body the death of Jesus” everywhere we go (2 Corinthians 4:10). First, Lent is a time of mourning. In the preceding section, Paul reminds the church that their role as agents of reconciliation rests on the fact of the reconciling death of Jesus on the cross who died in our place. For this reason, Paul pleads for the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20b). As living representatives of his reconciling death, we can never forget it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

What often gets forgotten in our joyous realization of the gift of righteousness is that the holy innocent One died the death meant for us sinners. The loss and lament experienced by the women on the way to the cross (Luke 23:27) and the followers of Jesus after his death (Mark 16:10; John 20:11) is a pain we too must carry with us this season. They wept at the loss of communion with a friend, brother, and leader who had shared his life, meals, and travels with them for the past three years. They mourned the death of the man who had brought great hope through his miraculous works and words of life. But with his death the hope that he would be the One to redeem Israel had left them (Acts 24:21). As beneficiaries of the grace brought forth by his death, we too must mourn his death.

Second, Lent is a time of penance. How often the gift of forgiveness is taken for granted as if God’s mercy and grace were reduced to an automatic Pez dispenser readily available at the request of the petitioner. Once again, Paul admonishes the Corinthians “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). They were doing this by living in a manner that nullified the grace of God that had been bestowed on them, and we would do well not to follow in their ways.

Throughout the year, we also test the grace of God by our continued disobedience and unwillingness to acknowledge the lordship of God over our lives. When things go badly on account of our sinful demeanor, we expect that a mere curtsey will suffice to recuperate the loss of favor with God. Week after week, we continue to attend church services to offer up to God praise offerings that are mere lip service, void of genuine repentance. As Isaiah 29:13 puts it, “The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” We too need to turn to God with penitent hearts.

For this reason, the apostle Paul beseeches them exclaiming “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). How often we put off God’s call for reconciliation! How often we fail to listen to God’s loving invitation to turn from our sins and fall to our knees before his feet in repentant adoration!

Third, Lent is a time of accepting and coming to terms with our mortality. A common phrase spoken as the ash cross is drawn on parishioners’ foreheads is: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words run contrary to the triumphalist mental attitude typically taken for life. We believe ourselves to be unstoppable and act as if we were immortal. But the truth is we are fragile creatures with an unpredictable expiration date.

Paul had a clear sense of this when he reflected on his affliction-filled ministry saying, “as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities” (2 Corinthians 6:4). In fact, he goes to great lengths to enumerate the many ways he suffered for the gospel throughout his ministry bracketing his comments with these words: “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). This section is not a glorification of suffering, but rather a candid realization that Christian life and ministry are not exempt from pain and sorrow.

In a world where we relentlessly chase after success and measure achievement by the possessions we’ve accumulated, Lent reminds us we are mortals and at death we don’t take anything with us. Such a somber truth, however, should not lead us to a pessimistic view of reality. Instead, it should fuel our desire to focus more and more on the things of above (Colossians 3:1-4), and to die to the earthly yearning of clinging more and more to life in this world (Romans 8:12-13).

This season of Lent through prayer and fasting should lead us to search the attitude of our hearts and extinguish our inner compulsions to live according to the manners and customs of this world. May the Spirit strengthen our body, soul, and spirit this Lenten season.