Ash Wednesday

Published 5:23 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2022

By Charles Qualls

As you read this, Ash Wednesday is arriving. I understand that not every church observes occasions of the liturgical calendar. Nonetheless, Ash Wednesday marks our beginning into the season of Lent. 

If we hope for more than for Easter day to simply pop out of the calendar like a kaleidoscopic pastel party, then centuries of Christians have found the weeks of Lent to be an important time. In these days, we do the work of preparing our spirits for the meaning of Christ’s triumph over death. 

This Ash Wednesday service, then, is our gateway into a season of hope. Yet we begin it by inherently reminding each other that “From dust we have come, and to dust we will return.” We will say those words, and even the ashes that are to come at the end hold that symbolism. 

Yes, this is a dark service in some ways. It is laced with a dark message. Yet, it is precisely in that darkness that our ultimate hope in Jesus Christ is born. We need this yearly reminder. 

One pastor tells of a friend who went to a local jewelry store. A young woman wanted to buy a necklace with a cross for another woman. That’s what her friend wanted for her birthday. She came home with two necklaces and asked the recipient, “Do you want a plain one or one with a little man on the cross?” The birthday girl explained to her friend, very gently, that the little man on the cross was Jesus. 

Another pastor tells of an Ash Wednesday service he did in the last few years. They had the ashes mixed with oil, and administered the sign of the cross to the congregants. His associate pastor took her finger and made the sign on his forehead, and he did on hers. 

He decided to test just how much our society at-large knows about our faith these days. He went to a pharmacy on his way home from the service. The employee there said, “How nice, you have a cross on your forehead. I wish I could have gone to an Ash Wednesday service before I came to work today.” But another man said to him, “Do you realize you have some dirt smudged on your forehead?”  Another woman asked him, “Why do you have a cross drawn on your head?”  

So, we live in a culture where we can’t assume one way or the other what people know about our faith in Jesus. I can’t get all of my own church members to understand why Lent is so important. But I hope you’ll get it. Our faith is work. It’s not all about doing good or benevolent work. Instead, much of the faith work falls into intentional, disciplined seasons like Lent. 

The famous theologian Jurgen Moltmann observed, “Totally without hope, you and I can’t live. To live without hope is not to live at all. Hopelessness is Hell. It’s no wonder when Dante wrote his Inferno, he put this message over the door to Hell– “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

Not all of what we do as Christian pilgrims is bright and full of whimsy. Observing these days means we intentionally take ourselves into darker reminders of what Jesus did. It is a part of giving thanks.

Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely said, “New life always begins in the dark. Whether it is a seed planted in the ground, whether it is a baby in the womb, whether it is Jesus in the tomb, new life begins in the dark.”

Maybe you’ll attend a service today. I don’t know whether you’ll go to the drug store and let people see your cross. Or maybe you’ll go out with some friends tonight before you wash off your forehead. But when you get home, before you wash, go into a room that has a mirror. 

Take a look at that cross on your forehead in the reflection there. Look at the suffering and death that is represented there. Think on what Jesus endured for us. If anyone understands what it is to face pain, rejection, hurt and uncertainty as you and I may be facing it today– it is Jesus. We serve someone who suffered. We ought to remember that. 

But remember something else, too. On the 3rd day, he was raised. What was hopelessness on Friday and Saturday became a slow unfolding of hope and faith on Easter Sunday!

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.