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2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

Ash Wednesday is a somber moment in the ecclesial calendar. It inaugurates a somber season. Lent’s testimony that we all will one day die is interrupted only by the Sundays of this season, Sundays that stand as “little Easters.” Those Sundays are foreshadowings of the coming day of exaltation and glorification of the mutilated body of Jesus, the day of salvation for and with all the mutilated people of the present evil age. The resurrection of the body of Jesus is God’s “No!” to that age that is bent on further exalting the already exalted and further humbling the already humbled.

Perhaps the most direct declaration in all of Holy Scripture of the significance of Jesus’s crucifixion is Paul’s: “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 Cor 5:21). It is important that this passage be heard with all of its intensity. Jesus “knew no sin,” because he was faithful to the call of his Father, faithful, though that faithfulness took him into the belly of the beast, of sin and death. This is the belly of the beast that destroys body, soul, and spirit, that destroys all that might be called life, all that might be called hope. The faithfulness of Jesus, his “knowing no sin”—his surrender of every compunction, every fear, every self-defensiveness; his surrender of impulses to disgust before what is defiled, bleeding, bloody, dying, dead, what breathes through collapsing lungs and oozes bodily fluids through open wounds . . . that is, before everything unclean, everything that everyone knew would without fail block the way to God—this faithfulness shone like the imploring, open gaze of a dying face, offering everything to his Father’s giving and forgiving embrace, as all of creation crumbled and fell away in the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This faithfulness took him into the worst nightmare of any faithful child of God, the foreclosure of every sign of God’s presence.

And it is crucially important that his being made sin not be imagined weakly. That he became sin signifies that he is defeated by all the disintegration that sin concretely yields. Sin is not to be understood as a moral category, say, a deliberate violation of the the standards of justice, however crudely or sublimely understood. Sin is a theological term to be understood primarily in relation to God and secondarily in relation to the well being, the shalom, in which God created humans to dwell. The purity laws of ancient Israel were there to lead the people of Israel to an integrity of heart, soul, mind, and strength, of one’s entire bodily life. If one lacked this integrity, one was barred from the temple and thus from God and the sanctity that God would grant. To be misaligned with God was to have fallen into sin, whether that be due to accidental bodily impurity (say, contacting a corpse or having an infected wound) or to deliberate faithlessness (such as turning to a pagan god for help). Jesus plummets into absolute impurity when he is scourged and crucified. His body loses all of its integrity. His soul wastes away. His spirit is released as he breathes his last. And he is all this in the same solidarity with the poor and unclean dying and dead people of the world that he had with them in happier times, around a supper table or at a wedding. That is, it is crucially important that it be remembered that his unclean death took place with the unclean deaths of thieves and of others, near and far.

On Ash Wednesday we remember not only our mortality, but we remember it inside the mortality of Jesus. No one gets out of here alive, but when we die, we die with him, just as he gave himself to die with us—not as if our sin and death were piled on him, as from the outside, but alongside us, entangled in us and in our hard lives and hard deaths.

Both the death and the resurrection of Jesus—together!—stand as a call that we are by the Spirit to hear and obey. It is a call to join him in his solidarity with the broken, suffering people of this world, especially those told directly and indirectly, again and again, that they have no hope left. That is, the call of Ash Wednesday and of Lent and of Holy Week is a singular call to follow him, in spite of our uncleanness, to live and work among people who like Jesus are shoved aside in the grand march of this present evil age to greater and greater victory. Paul has heard that call and has obeyed. That is how it has come about that he, bowing before the glorified mutilated body of Jesus, has also been afflicted: “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (6:5). In Christ, even the most serious disintegration of the heart, soul, mind, and strength cannot separate us from the Holy God and the sanctity that God graciously showers on faithful broken ones. Ash Wednesday is a call to walk out into our mortality, out into our carnal future, out into our vulnerability to wounds of body and mind. You and I will one day die—as did Jesus. Easter Sunday and all the “little Easters” of Lent remind us that no disintegration of heart, soul, mind, or strength is able to separate us from the embrace of God in Christ Jesus.