Growing up in an evangelical Christian home in Colorado Springs, I literally had no clue about Ash Wednesday as a kid. I had no exposure to it. Though I had one or two Catholic friends, to my recollection they never talked about it, and our paths rarely crossed outside of school settings. My family didn’t live close to downtown where most of the mainline churches that would’ve practiced Ash Wednesday were, so I had a slim chance of actually seeing someone with ashes on their forehead, and my church certainly never talked about it.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager, now living in Mississippi, that I first encountered Ash Wednesday. When I noticed the ashen crosses smeared on the foreheads of some classmates, I naturally inquired about the marks. But I’m afraid the explanation I was given regarding them wasn’t all that helpful. I was told Ash Wednesday was something Catholics did to repent of all the drunk partying they did the day before on Fat Tuesday. It was presented to me as a day of cheap grace, a way to pay penance and be absolved for the previous day’s deliberate debauchery.
I gradually discerned that those caricatures weren’t all that accurate, and that it was actually a holy day in the year many denominations practiced. It has only been in the past few years, though, that I’ve gained a clearer understanding and appreciation for Ash Wednesday. In fact, it has become a day that I’ve embraced and invite my church to participate in.
Ash Wednesday is a day on the church calendar that marks the beginning of the season of Lent (in part two of this blog, which will post next week, I will explain the church calendar and Lent for those of you, like me, who grew up with no understanding of Lent either). For over 10 centuries, it has been a day set aside by Christians to remind us of our sinfulness and our mortality–that we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God; we are mortals destined for the grave. You came from the dust, and to the dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19). James 4:14 reminds us that life is like a mist that quickly vanishes. It’s here, and then it’s gone.
The truth is we need Ash Wednesday. We need to be forced to look our frailty square in the eyes. We need to contemplate that we are sinful mortals. The bad news of our sinfulness prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. The despair of death drives us to look toward Easter, when our Lord conquered the grave.
So next Wednesday, March 6th, is Ash Wednesday, and our church, like many others, is hosting an Ash Wednesday service. We will gather from 5:30-6:15 p.m. to spend time reflecting on our sins, lament and confess them, and ask God to have mercy. We will be admonished to repent and believe the gospel. We will look to Jesus and plead His blood for our cleansing.
For those who wish to participate, we will impose ashes, smearing a small cross on foreheads as a physical, felt, and visible mark of repentance, and a reminder of our need for Jesus’s death.
I realize that for many of you, this will be a new practice. It might seem strange or cause you to feel uncomfortable. To be clear, participating in Ash Wednesday is neither a biblical or church requirement. You are no more or less Christian or holy if you take part or abstain. You are free in Christ! But I urge you to prayerfully consider coming.
I believe this is a meaningful time to help us pause and recognize our need for grace. In a culture doing everything it can to distract us from the reality of sin and death, we need to give a due consideration to our mortality. Ultimately, Ash Wednesday is not morose or morbidly introspective; inasmuch as we look inward and repent, we also look upward and rejoice. Ash Wednesday sets the stage for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
I hope you’ll join me next Wednesday.
Pastor of Preaching & Vision