I both dig and dislike something Joan Chittister writes regarding Ash Wednesday. I came across the following in her book The Liturgical Year:
We don’t have time to waste on nothingness. We must repent of our dillydallying on the road to God. We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way. We need to repent of our selfish excesses and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savoring of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, our infantile addictions…”
Ouch. The truth hurts. Even if I’m being sorta honest with myself, it doesn’t take me long to become self aware of my own spiritual failure. Though I enjoy the grandmotherly use of the word dillydallying in the above quote, I must confess that it’s a pretty good descriptor for how I sometimes handle my relationship with God. Whenever I turn attention away from Jesus, I look to something else to fulfill my deepest need. Diversions, excesses, sin, self-protection, self-gratification… all enticing at the time yet utterly disappointing and empty in their fulfillment. Someone has said sin promises what it cannot deliver, and, based on my experience, that’s completely true. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, I willfully do what I know is wrong, in the twisted belief that I will be made whole and get away with it, too. God has not called us to this kind of imprisonment to self and sin. He’s called us to life abundant. That’s what we need, and that’s what today is about.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a church season called Lent. In the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting Sundays), we spend intentional time in reflection, repentance, and renewal. Why 40 days? Two reasons: First, after His baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying. Second, because our souls morph very very slowly. 40 days ensures the margin needed for deep spiritual transformation. As of today we are 46 days from Resurrection Sunday, April 16th. Just as Easter is always held on a Sunday, Ash Wednesday is always held on a Wednesday, the date of which can be discovered by counting back 46 days. The extra 6 days are Sundays. Even during the season of Lent, every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
We know why it falls on Wednesday, but what’s up with the ashes? Ashes symbolize the frailty and temporary nature of our humanity. In the creation account of Genesis, we see God forming the first man, Adam, out of the dust of the earth. God breathes life into Adam. Adam had everything, yet he and his wife Eve sinned. They made themselves unclean, unholy, disconnected from God. We call this the fall of humanity. In Genesis 3, we read that God said “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Sin brought physical death into our now broken world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often find myself thinking about the fact that I’m going to die someday. It’s easy to forget that life is temporary, but we must reflect on this truth. It is undeniable. When you receive the ashes, you’ll hear this phrase: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Ashes symbolize repentance, which is the turning away from sin and turning toward God. In the Old Testament, people would mourn for things, including their own sinfulness, by ashing themselves and tearing their clothes. The prophet Joel proclaims: rend your hearts, not your garments. Thomas Merton, in writing about Ash Wednesday, said that if we tear our clothes, only the cold gets in, but if we tear our hearts open, the garbage of our hearts are released and the fresh breath of God can come in.
We have a Shop-Vac at our house that we use to clean up the big messes — the spilled potting soil, the pulverized cheerios, the catastrophic failure of a diaper. The inside of our Shop-Vac canister has seen and held some of the worst “sins” of our home. Every now and then I need to empty it. Out come the cheerios, the dirt, the dust, the loose change, the Lego pieces… and the soul of the vacuum is made clean again. Joan Chittister writes “Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to better.” Tearing my heart open in an act of repentance is the only way I can accept my condition, own who I am, acknowledge what I’ve done, and seek the emptying out of my own personal soul garbage and be filled with healing breath of God.
Our souls are stained with fear, which disrupts our faith, shrinks our capacity to love, and crushes our joy like an ant.
Our souls are smudged by indifference, which lets us off the hook when it comes to being fully attentive to God in us and around us.
Our souls are soiled by selfishness, which puts our wants, our needs, our desires at the center of our will and motivation. At the center should be Christ, who commands us simply to love God and love each other. In our lives, either Jesus is Lord or… He isn’t. There is no middle ground.
Ash Wednesday is a time to repent, to acknowledge our sin and let God heal us, and to make and keep Him first in our lives.
Ashes represent the renewal we get through Christ. When we take the imposition of the ashes on our forehead, it is in the shape of a cross. This is very very very on purpose. The cruciform (cross shape) reminds us that we are forgiven, redeemed, and made new in Christ Jesus. It was His work on the cross that sets us free from sin and death. When we put our faith in Christ, we put our faith in the One who took on our earthly, ashen nature, lived a sinless life, and was yet crucified on the cross. This is the first and foremost work of renewal — to be born again, breathed into again, clean and holy. And by His resurrection from the dead, we too become fully alive in Him forever. We are instantly transformed.
The ongoing renewal is now in how we live as a result. In Matthew 6, Jesus expects us to give to the needy. He anticipates that we’ll be committed to regular prayer. And He instructs us quite clearly on fasting — not if but when. Every practice brings the blessing of renewal and the reward of the Father.
Are we indifferent to the needs of others? Are we indifferent to our need for God through prayer and submission? Are we indulgent to the point where we count on stuff, like food or technology or business, to keep us happy?
Ash Wednesday is the day for me and you to say “That’s it! I’m coming clean! I know I’m not living the life of freedom and joy Christ died to give me, and that’s ridiculous. God, help me!”
Seems like a pretty good prayer, and a great way to start counting the time to Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the most important day in the life of the church and in the life of a believer. Where would we be without the resurrected Christ? Lost, afraid, incomplete, broken. Ash Wednesday reminds us not only of what we are, but of who we are in Christ. This isn’t merely about our sin, it’s about God’s mercy shown in Christ.
What are we? We are dust.
Who is God? Our maker and Father, whom we’ve turned away from. We turn back.
What has God done? Set us free in Christ and filled us with the Spirit.