“Is that printer toner on your forehead?” I didn’t really say that out loud to my officemate. But the unfiltered thought did pop into my head like an unexpected jack-in-the-box. I caught myself realizing the day was Ash Wednesday, which, to that point in my life, was something curious and exotic, but not really real. Like the moons of Jupiter. In the years sense, I’ve come to find engaging in Ash Wednesday to be one of the more beautiful moments of the liturgical calendar, as well as an essential piece in understanding God’s mission in the world.
Ash Wednesday is a day for taking sin seriously—sin that I’ve willfully chosen, sin in what I’ve left undone, the sin of systems of which I’m complicit. Ash Wednesday is a day to lament. It’s a somber day, not out of self-flagellation, but honest lament and mourning for the things in me and in the my neighborhood that grieve God. There are things in me and in the world that God did not put there, and the season of Lent is for spring cleaning, for taking the surgical knife to cut them out.
Ash Wednesday means Easter is coming. This is the best news. Ash Wednesday means the countdown to resurrection has begun. It’s time to get ready.
Ash Wednesday is for repentance
“Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night” (Psalm 51:2–3).
The lectionary psalm for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51:1-17. Traditionally, this is the psalm attributed to David after his scheme to murder Uriah and take his wife Bathsheba is found out. On Ash Wednesday, we take a long look in the mirror. We confess sin both to God and to one another.
At the climax of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Indiana Jones faces a series of riddles on his way to the holy grail, he attempts to avoid the grisly fate of the Nazi minions who have been decapitated before him. He puzzles over the phrase in his father’s notebook, “The penitent man will pass.” As the mysterious breeze starts to blow, he drops to his knees just before the elaborate contraption chops his head off.
On the journey of Lent on the way to Easter, the penitent person will pass. It requires a posture of humility. We are victims of sin, but we are also perpetrators. Like a creature lurking in the shadows, or the blades in the Indiana Jones movie, sin is eager to kill us. A community of Jesus has the courage to name the sin that’s been hiding in its shadows, and without judgment, names it, confesses it out loud, and brings it to the cross. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with the message, “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Repentance is the gateway to God’s kingdom.
Ash Wednesday is for doing spiritual disciplines well
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people” (Isaiah 58:6).
The Old Testament lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday is Isaiah 58:1-12. This is one of my absolute favorite passages of Scripture. The prophet describes a movement from spiritual disciplines to social justice to healing to social transformation to Sabbath (the lectionary reading unfortunately cuts off the Sabbath conclusion). The season of Lent involves not only the giving up of pleasures, but also for the taking up of spiritual disciplines. But this text reminds us that spiritual disciplines can be done badly.
A community of Jesus embodies these lines, as Eugene Peterson renders in The Message, “You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.” The end result of spiritual disciplines is not a sense of self-fulfillment or of self-enlightenment, but rather community revitalization. When we do spiritual disciplines well, we are propelled into the world, participating with Jesus in making the world new.
Ash Wednesday is for untangling my own hypocrisy
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get” (Matthew 6:16).
The Gospel reading lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. This is from the Sermon on the Mount, and the chapter starts with this line, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (NIV). That word “righteousness” can throw us because it makes us think of moral purity. But it’s the same word elsewhere in the New Testament translated as “justice,” which carries with it a social dimension.
Jesus goes on to specifically name giving to the poor, fasting, and prayer as these “acts of righteousness/justice.” These are spiritual practices traditionally associated with Lent, and they are profoundly social practices. These are practices that shape us for loving neighbor every bit as much as for loving God. They shape our engagement in the world, but we so often reduce them to a shallow, individualistic shadow of what God invites throughout the pages of Scripture. And a particularly ugly version of practicing them calls attention to our own selves, that says “Look at me!”, that enables our corrosive selfishness. Jesus names this “hypocrisy.”
A community of Jesus that submits itself humbly to these three simply practices of generosity to the poor, fasting, and prayer subverts the culture’s insidious narcissism. They cultivate our love for neighbor. They irresistibly call us out of ourselves to pour ourselves out on behalf of those in the neighborhood. They dissolve the white-knuckled grip of self-centeredness, the presence of which we may have very well fallen asleep to.
Ash Wednesday is for patience in difficulty
“Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
The New Testament lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday is 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. The journey of Lent is often associated with asceticism, the intentional setting aside of pleasure for the 40 days. We give up chocolate. We give up meat. We give up sweets or soda. We give up social media. For what? For a masochistic stroke of guilt? For the challenge? No, it’s to remind us, as Jesus rebukes the devil, human beings don’t live on bread alone. Ash Wednesday is hard. Lent is hard. But God is with us in the struggle.
A community of Jesus, displaying the values of God’s kingdom as they take shape in our neighborhoods, models a self control that subverts the culture’s infatuation with instant gratification. We are bombarded by advertising that douses us with messages that we need more, that something is missing, and until we find it, purchase it, consume it, we won’t be satisfied. But we know that’s a lie. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the lie. It reminds what “empty calories” these things are to our soul—these endorphin hits of pleasure, affirmation, or love. By willingly and temporarily laying them down, we do our work to untangle ourselves and name the addictions that hijack our appetites. In a world that does its best to persuade that more is better, we remember that in God’s kingdom, less is more. There is goodness in the waiting.
So what do you say? Will you let Ash Wednesday embrace you like an old friend, know her safe place to unmask your brokenness, and hear her lovingly assure you, “It’s okay that you’re not okay. It’s okay that the world’s not okay”? Will you hear her gentle and confident reminder, “Jesus is making everything new”?
Ash Wednesday is just the first step in a journey that for the next months will lead us through the cross, to resurrection, and finally the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church at Pentecost.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.