Ash Wednesday – Practicing our faith

March 26, 2014

There’s a tension built into our service today. We are warned about practicing our faith publicly in order to get attention. For people to think well of us, but the central practice of Ash Wednesday is a public statement, ashes on our forehead. I was always taught that these ashes are not something to be proud of. This isn’t some kind of pat on the back for our humility. We really need to think about what we’re doing when we put these ashes on. Unfortunately, we need to think about things we normally avoid thinking about. We need to think about sin, repentance, and death. But don’t worry; we’ll turn things around by the end.

There’s nothing clean about these ashes. They get things messy. I suspect many/most of us have already had showers today, and gotten ourselves cleaned up. And now we’re about to get ourselves messy again. But that’s what’s on the outside. The inside is a different story. On the inside, most of us probably have some places where things are not so clean. We have places in our hearts where we hold grudges, where we enjoy gossip, whatever. I know what most of my sins are, and I suspect most of you know what your sins are. And we spend an enormous amount of time hiding them. We hide them from the people around us, and we hide them from ourselves. But we don’t hide today. The ashes bring these sins out in the open. And we bring them to the cross where they are forgiven and we are redeemed.

This isn’t an easy process, it requires humility and it requires repentance. And repentance is the second piece that we reflect on today. By coming to receive these ashes, we are expressing regret and remorse for the things that we’ve done to hurt other people and to hurt ourselves. We are taking responsibility for the things we’ve done. We are choosing to turn our backs on our old way of life, and we are choosing to embrace the life of Christ. We are struggling to take the first steps, and we are asking God for help to continue.

The third thing these ashes remind us of is our death. When we impose the ashes, we say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There’s so much here in these words. Remember that you are dust: this is a call to humility. In the great expanse of history, we really aren’t much. It’s easy to get puffed up. But we need to be honest about who we are. We may not be much, but God still walks with each one of us. But in the end, we will all return to the dust. This isn’t some sort of maudlin image. This isn’t an attempt to scare us into not sinning – that doesn’t work. It’s a reminder that we should take each day as a gift, as an opportunity to grow in the love of God. However long we have in our earthly lives, we can use that time to make the world a little better, to make our corner of the world a place where people can see the kingdom of God. But we have to remember that our time here is finite, and we should use it the best we can.

These are difficult topics to consider. And if we focused solely on sin, repentance, and death, then the proper response would probably be despair. But that’s not how we do things. There’s always something bigger in the background. We always walk in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the resurrection. We reflect on these ashes during the Holy Eucharist. So we should also remember that this is a celebration, a thanksgiving for the work of salvation that has already been accomplished. We don’t have to do all the work; Jesus has already taken our burdens. We have our work of repentance to do, both during this season of Lent and beyond. But even when we do the difficult work of Ash Wednesday, we remember that Easter is already here as well.

– Michael Tuck+

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