Just recently I had the privilege of going to Rome to commemorate Ash Wednesday at a Catholic Mass led by Pope Francis. I had never before been to an Ash Wednesday service where I received ashes on my head as a reminder of the beginning of Lent. I shared this experience with my friends Chris Haynes, a fellow missionary in Prague, and Gregory Gresko, a Benedictine Monk who secured us the invitation to the service.
The tradition I was raised in did not recognize many events on the church calendar, so this was really new to me. Lent is a time to reflect on things in our life. The message that the Pope delivered was in Italian, but I read a transcript of it after the service. He focused on three words: pause, see, and return. As a result of being present for this service, I have been more reflective this season.
The first weekend in March I attended a conference in Northampton, England, with an organization I have begun to work with in my ministry called The Dunamis Project. Dunamis means “power” in Greek. They are a reformed theological group that seeks to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I’ll be doing work with them in Belarus and Prague later this spring.
The first night of the conference we had Communion together. My friend Martin, who I met at another conference back in January, was leading this part of the service. He mentioned a phrase that really stayed with me. He talked about Jesus being hung on an executioner’s stake. This made me think of how my sin doesn’t just lead to spiritual death but also to physical death. In fact, just earlier that week I had spoken to my small group in Prague about James 5. I explained how, although not common, sometimes our sins can lead to immediate physical death, like in a drug overdose situation. I’ve been thinking about how, because of my sin, I deserve an execution sentence. Incredibly, Jesus took my place and by grace alone I am still alive today despite some very stupid choices I’ve made over the course of my life. While ultimately we are saved from spiritual death, many times we are saved from physical death as well.
During Communion, I spent a few minutes in prayer and reflection, I went up to take the bread that represents Christ’s body broken for me. I’m not sure where it came from, but the bread they were using that night tasted very bitter. It just wasn’t good. I even grimaced when I ate it, and it reinforced to me the reality of the bitter payment for my sin. Next, I went to take the wine, but I experienced a very familiar taste from my childhood… real grape juice! It was very sweet, especially compared to the wine I’m used to drinking. Immediately, I thought, “How sweet is the blood of Jesus!” His sacrifice washed away my sins and set me free from the bondage of sin and death.
We remember today as the day of the crucifixion. Let us contemplate for a moment this reality. The blood that was shed on the cross paid a debt that we owed but could not pay. We recognize the bitter pain of his bruised body, and the sweet victory of his blood poured out for us. Thankfully, Jesus’ death isn’t the end of that story. He rose again and defeated death. That is why we have reason to celebrate on Easter Sunday.
As the famous preacher S. M. Lockridge says, “It is only Friday. Sunday is a comin’!” Praise God for His victory!