Christians who are attentive to the Christian calendar that structures the year around the great mysteries of our faith are aware that we are now in the season of Lent. This season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter began, as it always does, on Ash Wednesday. The liturgy of this day is one of my favourites. Perhaps you, like me, received the imposition of ashes, smudged onto our foreheads in the sign of the cross. In my tradition, this is accompanied by the priest saying ten simple but powerful words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Each year these words haunt me, not in a morbid or negative way but in a strange but powerfully comforting way. I think the reason they are so comforting has to do with the big story of Lent and Holy Week and that is what I have been thinking about this season.
The most basic statement of that big story is found in the ritual words: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” This isn’t intended to explain what is called the Paschal mystery – the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – merely to present its essential elements in a form that will hold us. I was raised in a tradition that offered a theory that was supposed to explain this mystery. Substitutionary atonement was the name of the theory and it suggests that by his death, Jesus rescues sinners from the anger of God. This particular theory hasn’t made sense to me for a long time. My own thinking leans more to understanding the death of Jesus as the perfect and fullest possible illustration of self-emptying love. But regardless of what understanding of these profound mysteries we might hold it will never be big enough to hold us. Only the mystery that lies behind our imperfect understandings is big enough to hold us. The understandings are, therefore, quite unimportant and are certainly not worth arguing about.
The Paschal mystery that lies at the core of the Christian faith is a big enough story to make life meaningful, regardless of what comes our way. It is, therefore, big enough to hold us. The Paschal mystery connects our past (Christ has died), present (Christ is risen), and future (Christ will come again). It connects suffering, death and hope – the most basic elements of human existence (suffering and death) and the one thing we need (hope) to respond to them with openness and trust. This is religion at its best – connecting us to the realities of our life while offering a framework of mystical hope.