I don’t know how this happened, but I managed to get through 27 years of life and 3 years of seminary without ever having attended an Ash Wednesday service. In fact, I didn’t even know what it was until I got to college. I was pretty confused when I saw people walking around campus with black smears on their foreheads. I remember wondering if it was some new cult that I hadn’t heard about.
Well today I experienced my first Ash Wednesday service EVER. It was thoroughly un-Baptist–lots of reciting liturgy and reading excessively long and bleak passages of Scripture. I tried to spice it up a bit by suggesting we add music to the program, but even with my guitar playing and my attempts at being upbeat, it was fairly dark.
It was also very powerful.
Let me tell you why….
If you’re like me, you may not understand what this crazy Ash Wednesday stuff is all about, so I’ll fill you in. What most people do know is that it marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. Traditionally, Christians have used the season of Lent as a time to fast in preparation for Easter. It is a time to reflect on the gravity of our sin, and how that sin resulted in the execution of our Savior. Fasting is a way of focusing our hearts and minds on what is to come–every time we are tempted to partake of the chocolate, soda, sugar, etc. that we’ve decided to give up, we are reminded of Christ and what he sacrificed for us.
But what’s with the ashes? In the course of an Ash Wednesday service, the minister places ash on your forehead in the shape of a cross and then pronounces, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What’s that about?
Well in my opinion, this is the coolest part about Ash Wednesday. Those ashes are not just random ashes from the minister’s fireplace–they come from a very special source. Traditionally, they are the ashes of the palm leaves used at Palm Sunday the previous year.
Do you see the meaning here?? The very palms that we used to celebrate and exalt our Savior are the same palms we use to acknowledge our tremendous unfaithfulness to him. One minute we are praising God, the next minute we are sinning against Him. That is the searing truth behind those ashes. They remind us of what it is to be human, what it is to be a sinner.
And that is why those words are spoken over us on Ash Wednesday. The ashes of our duplicity are emblazoned on our foreheads, exclaiming to us and the world: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are human, you are fallible, you are a sinner. Think on this, meditate, grieve and repent for you stand unfaithful before a holy God.”
The hymn we sang today was entitled “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and the Episcopal campus minister noticed that one of the stanzas to the song does not appear in the Episcopal hymnal. He also had a sinking suspicion why. The words of the deleted stanza read as follows: “When I was sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.” The minister jokingly reasoned that Episcopalians don’t like to think about God frowning, which is probably why that stanza didn’t make it into the hymnal. People don’t like to think about that kind of God, a God who detests our sin.
But that is what Ash Wednesday is all about. We are forced to confront our sin, without excuse. We have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with God. That is indeed a difficult task. But in doing so, we are blessed to discover the magnitude of God’s love. The more seriously we take this season, and the more thoroughly we consider the depths of our sin, the more profoundly we will understand the grace that has been bestowed upon us, and the more jubilantly we will rejoice upon the day of his resurrection. While Ash Wednesday is somber, it is not masochistic–it is actually a means for more fully comprehending our blessedness. If we are willing to embark on this difficult journey for the next 40 days, we will discover it is actually a gateway to fuller joy.
I hope this little Ash Wednesday lesson encourages you to embark on just such a journey.