Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Published 8:47 am Friday, February 19, 2010

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These familiar words are spoken every year at Ash Wednesday’s service. The normal custom is that the individual worshipper moves to the altar to receive what is known as the imposition of ashes. The sign of the cross is placed on the individual’s forehead for all to see. I, for one, take great pains not to wash the sign of the cross from my head until I return home and prepare for bed. What significance did Ash Wednesday hold for us in the year 2010?

1. Ash Wednesday signaled an end to the party known as Mardi Gras and the beginning of our Lenten journey. Lent is that 40-day walk that prepares us for the paschal celebration of Easter. Ash Wednesday has become the day of penitence, where we examine ourselves and our relationship to Christ. This is a day and a time in which we ought to put aside the sins and failures of our past, and focus on who we are yet to become in Christ.

2. Ash Wednesday was a particular time for new beginnings of faith, a time to return to the Lord. The prophet Isaiah framed the thought like this:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and return to the Lord, and he will have compassion on him; and to our God.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)

On Ash Wednesday, we remembered our own mortality, sought God and waited for his renewing Spirit.

3. Ash Wednesday was a day for us to be brutally honest with ourselves and with God. We need to be honest with ourselves about who we are, our relationship among our neighbors and our relationship with God. This is exceptionally difficult for us, and we must seek God’s assistance in our own self-examination. Frequently, individuals are placed in our lives for this very purpose. This was the manner in which God allowed David to see himself as he really was. The prophet Nathan was sent to David and in sharing a parable; David gained fresh insight into his behavior. (2 Samuel 12:1-4) After hearing the parable, David realized that his behavior had not only harmed others, but had displeased God and harmed his relationship with God. Only then could David seek God’s forgiveness and seek to restore his relationship with God.

4. Ash Wednesday reminded us that God still intervenes in our lives (like his dealing with David). Our relationship with God is based on God’s love, compassion and mercy toward us. This relationship is initiated and sustained by God, but we are called to deepen that relationship by responding to God’s loving care and call on our lives.

5. Ash Wednesday was an opportunity to renew our covenant with God. This included our honest assessment and disclosure to God; the experience of God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness; the practice of forgiving ourselves (and others); a renewed effort to live in the awareness of God’s presence; the restoration of a right spirit within us; the assurance of the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit; and the joy of our salvation. This is the pattern of Psalm 51 where David asks God to

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from you presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain me in 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. (Psalm 51:10-14)

6. On Ash Wednesday we should have been cognizant of and sorry for our failings, our missing God’s mark for us, for underachieving God’s hopes and prayers for our lives. But, we should be confident in God’s love, compassion and mercy for us. We should marvel that God continues his remarkable action in our world. It is my prayer that each of us will join in this remarkable 40-day journey with Jesus. Remember that we will not journey alone and perhaps we will have the opportunity to fall more deeply in love with Jesus, the Christ, who makes all things new. May our journey resemble the words penned by Margaret Cropper:

Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,

Healing pain and sickness, blessing children small.

Washing tired feet, and saving those who fall;

Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.

Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;

Make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do.

Let me watch you, Jesus, till I’m gentle too,

Till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.

Our community becomes stronger when Ash Wednesday becomes a reality instead of a habit.