I love Ash Wednesday
I used to dislike Ash Wednesday. Intensely. The only thing I looked forward to was the brilliance of Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. And then a number of years ago I realized something obvious: Ash Wednesday’s poignant reminder of our mortality is a profound gift. That gift, expressed in gritty ashes, is a reminder of an even greater gift: our precious journey in this life. Ash Wednesday reminds us to savor life — to use this brief pilgrimage for things heavenly, not things earthly. It reminds us to live life well — to experience the wholeness, joy, and health of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Debra Dean Murphy puts it well:
Lent reminds us that we’re all in the same boat—the sinking ship of our failed attempts to save ourselves, love ourselves, and save those we love. The ashes are not mere symbol; they are not a public sign of our piety (exactly what Jesus warns against in Ash Wednesday’s gospel reading). Instead, the ashes are as real as it gets—a sticky, gritty, grimy smear plastered to our foreheads, precisely on the same spot that the oil of baptism was applied. For Christians, the juxtaposition is as liberating as it is instructive: we are dying, yet we live. Death may be at our doorstep but it cannot steal our substance. We are alive in Christ, alive in one another, and alive in the hope that death (and hell) do not have the last word.
Whenever I work with families who are grieving, there is a deep sense of what is truly important. Grieving families almost never worry about job titles or what kind of car the deceased drove or how fashionably anyone is dressed. Instead, the important things are relationships: our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. That is what the grim and life-affirming message of Ash Wednesday is about: we are invited to reclaim the most important things. Death reminds us to savor life.
Lent is not about self-flagellation, but it is about penitence. Penitence isn’t very fashionable these days, but that does not diminish its importance. We have all messed up. Badly. And we need to say we’re sorry — to God and to one another. Of course, words are not enough. We need to change our lives, to return to God. We Christians are called to take a costly but joyous journey: to follow Jesus. That means we can’t follow anyone or anything else. Lent gives us the time we need to scrutinize our past choices and to make better choices for our future. Lent makes the space we need to ponder what and who we wish to follow.
So this Ash Wednesday, get yourself to a church. Receive the reminder of your mortality as a gift. Our earthly life is short. Let us use it well. Let us set aside the glittery, transient things of earth for the gritty, lasting things of heaven.
From the Epistle for Ash Wednesday:
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Image from flickr user Mandy_Jansen. I am grateful to Facebook friend Elizabeth Kaeton for drawing my attention to Murphy’s blog post.