Taking Up and Laying Down
The life and ministry of Jesus—his birth, his life and death, his resurrection and ascension—are all echoed in the celebrations and seasons of the church year. For the Christian, preparations are made for his coming during the season of Advent. Anticipation is garnered for the triumphant entry of God into the world in Jesus on Christmas Day, while the season of Epiphany unfolds further glimpses of his life and ministry. Each season of the church year is filled with expectation, discovery, and hope.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. And unlike the joyous celebration of Christmas, and the expectant discovery of Epiphany, Lent is a solemn season for the Christian, and this year, this is especially true. As part of the Ash Wednesday worship service, ashes are imposed on one’s forehead in the pattern of a cross. The imposed ashes are from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds—fronds reminiscent of those waved triumphantly as Jesus entered Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha. The Jews believed he entered the city as the coming King; they did not yet understand he would demonstrate his reign through the willing offer of his life.
These ashes on Christian foreheads can remind all humans of our common destiny: “From dust you come and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). For the Christian, the Lenten season is also meant to call us toward a common mission of offering our lives in service and sacrifice. It invites us to lose our lives in order to find them anew, resurrected with Jesus on Easter morning.
Whether or not one actively observes Lent, the season can serve as an invitation to evaluate our own lives and to examine the invitation of Jesus to die with him. We can enter this deathly contemplation with the anticipation of resurrection on Easter morning. But Christ’s path to resurrection is the path of laying down lives, the path of relinquishment, and the path of self-denial. This path feels entirely unnatural, for it takes us in the opposite direction of self-preservation.
Yet, Jesus said that if anyone wants to follow him, if anyone really wants the kind of life he offers, the kind of life he modeled for us in his own, then they must deny themselves, take up the cross and follow him. Following Jesus will lead us all to the cross, and will lead us all to the place of death. For the Christian, this is the downward journey of Lent. From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. Of course, regardless of the gods we follow, we all share in this destiny; like Jesus, we, too, will die. The pressing question, in light of this common destiny, is how shall we now live? How shall my life today respond to the reality of death and the invitation of life? The season invites all to respond to the question regarding what can be taken up and what must be laid down.
The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides an illustration of one answer to this question.(1) Bonhoeffer grew up in a home full of privilege and status. His father, a prominent psychiatrist, provided the best of what life had to offer. Bonhoeffer attended the finest university, and took a year before his ordination to study in the United States. His life was filled with promise and potential.
Yet, this life seemingly marked for success, would be marred by loss and suffering. He lost one brother in World War I and he would lose another in World War II. He eventually would be arrested by the Nazi regime for aiding Jews to safety. And while he embraced the risk of peace and dared to love in the face of one’s enemies, he would be implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler and executed at the age of 38.
In fact, it was not until after his death that Bonhoeffer’s ministry and influence had its most potent force. Many are now familiar with his books The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. His works have influenced students of theology, Christians yearning to grow in their understanding of discipleship, and also a watching a world full of questions about injustice and suffering. In his letters and papers published posthumously, Bonhoeffer argued that the will of God and the way of discipleship would not always lead to self-preservation or advancement. The will of God involves giving our lives for the sake of others (which Bonhoeffer believed would be the case for his action against Hitler). He would lay down his own life even as he took up the cause for the other. He wrote, “Christ’s vicarious deeds and particularly his death on our behalf, become in turn the principle and model of the self-sacrifice that makes community possible… [T]he church is the church only when it exists for others.”(2)
Following the path of Jesus can lead to a renewed, hopeful, and restored vision of life for anyone. For as we embrace our inevitable deaths and declines, as we embrace as it were, the downward path, we have the opportunity to let go of the false things we think make up our lives. We let go of thinking that the accumulation of wealth, power, and resources make up a good life; we let go of thinking that busyness makes us important; we let go of thinking that personal safety and security are to be preserved at all cost. And as we let go, we can take up all that makes life full. We can put others’ interests before our own, and what is done on behalf of others for the sake of Christ will indeed endure beyond our deaths.
The season of Lent is the season of dust and ashes. It is the journey toward one man’s death on a cross and toward our own. Bonhoeffer understood this as he wrote from his prison cell, and Jesus understood this as he bore the weight of suffering, misunderstanding, shame, and death at Golgotha. The way to resurrection life is not by saving our lives, but in losing them. Whether one observes Lent or not, the call to take up and lay down is issued to all.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Biographical information on Dietrich Bonhoeffer excerpted from Martin Doblmeier interviewed on Speaking of Faith, Feb. 2, 2006. Doblmeier produced the 2003 documentary, Bonhoeffer, broadcast on PBS.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 343.
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