Although the specific history is difficult to trace, Ash Wednesday has been the traditional beginning of the most familiar of the Christian seasons – Lent. What once was a simple sprinkling of ashes over the heads of worshipers as they received the liturgy turned into the more familiar “sign of the cross” on the forehead in ash. Traditionally the ashes come from the burnt palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday saved for the occasion.
As the worshipers receive the ashes, they connect to their own humanity and depravity. So often we get wrapped up in ourselves and self important pursuits. Our worlds get rather myopic and small, forgetting how frail we really are.
We are reminded of where we come from and how without God, life is empty and even impossible. Ashes are a symbol of mourning for those experiencing loss, disappointment, or sin. In fact, they are evidence of destruction.
Herein lies one of the paradoxes of life that Lent embodies. For anything to live, they have to die. Any forest ranger will tell you that at some point of time a forest needs to have what is called a “controlled burn” where a fire is intentionally set. When a forest burns it clears out dead limbs, undergrowth, and decomposing matter that clogs up the system. What results is, well – death. But when you come back the next year you find new life coming up from the ashes.
Resurrection is all around us. But, to experience this new life, we have to be willing to sacrifice. So many of us hold on to the things we bring life. Ash Wednesday is the day when we begin the journey towards resurrection. In so many ways we take on brokenness and even death. We stare down our sins and take courage that Christ’s sacrifice will bring us through to new life.
Join us as we reflect on the passages below and begin our journey together towards the resurrection.
(Also, check out this short video that gives a quick snapshot of the themes and purpose of Lent. I thought it was really helpful.)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near– a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ ”
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” 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.
Father, today I admit that I am broken
I have nothing outside of you.
Your mercy is all that I have
Your grace is all that I can claim
As I enter into my brokenness on this day
Hold my hand
As I enter the darkness of my own sin
Hold me close
As I face my own reality
Hold my heart.
Lead me to resurrection, Lord.
Walk with me on this journey from ashes to life.