One of the things I enjoy, when I have a free Sunday, is to visit other congregations. I enjoy worshiping in places and traditions that are different than my own. It reminds me that there are many ways of “doing” church – but there is one Lord, one faith, one hope, based on one God (Ephesians 4).
It is especially interesting to visit other churches during special seasons, such as the Easter season. And so, a couple of times, I have taken in an Ash Wednesday service as Lent begins.
Honestly, it feels awkward having someone mark my forehead with ash. It’s a bit embarrassing to walk around with the ash on my head. It’s outside of my comfort zone, and outside of my tradition. I can’t help but wonder if people notice, and what they think.
But isn’t that part of the point? Shouldn’t I feel awkward, knowing that the ash represents my mortality? Shouldn’t I feel humbled, as I recognize that the mark on my head is a symbol of my sinfulness? And just because it’s outside of my church tradition and my comfort level, does that mean I can’t learn from it?
The Church has had 2000 years to develop various ideas, practices, traditions, and belief structures. Some I have deep concerns with; some seem past their prime; but many of them can be a way to wrestle more deeply with my humanity, my mortality, and my immorality. Ash Wednesday is one of those.
Maybe it doesn’t work for you. And certainly there are folks who treat it as a magic cure for the sin that ails them. But for many, even most, I suspect that Ash Wednesday is a helpful reminder – a reminder of our brokenness, the brevity of life, and the basic need all of us have for the grace of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Ash Wednesday reminds me of one of my favorite verses in the Old Testament: Psalm 103.14. In context, verses 8-14 read (NRSV):
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
I’m dust. You’re dust. God knows we are dust. Even so, he chooses to surround us with His steadfast love. In fact, precisely because we are dust, God pours out His mercy, which is enough, no matter how dusty we are.
So, feel free to celebrate, or ignore, Ash Wednesday. But don’t miss the opportunity to use next Wednesday, and the season of Lent that it inaugurates, to open your heart and life to God. And be reminded how dependent you are on the grace only God can give.