Updated: Mar 2, 2022
What’s the deal with Ash Wednesday?
Let me say up front that you don’t have to mark this day. It’s a Christian tradition that goes back about 1200 years, but that means it was developed about 800 years after the first church. So, no, there’s nothing in this that binds you to keep it as a holy day.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent which follows this day, is an invitation. It is a spiritual practice, a habit that forms us by centering us on Christ and connecting us to the Body of Christ.
All spiritual habits are meant to help us become a habitation for the Holy Spirit and His work in and through us for God’s glory, for our good, and for the life of the world.
1. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to humble ourselves. The psalmist wrote that, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). The remembrance that we are dust comes in the context of God’s compassion for us. We are never scolded for being frail. It is God’s tenderness toward us that frees us to confess our need of him. Because our heavenly Father is gentle and patient, long-suffering and understanding, abounding in compassion, we humble ourselves, like little children. And it is here we realize that as little children, we are the ones to whom Jesus said the Kingdom belongs.
2. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to confess our sins. Ashes in the Bible were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30). Covering yourself or marking yourself with ashes was also an act of repentance and of turning toward God’s face. Daniel says that he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21). So, on Ash Wednesday we remember not only our frailty, but also our failure. We come before the God who is not only the Creator, but who is also the Redeemer.
3. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to remember God’s mercy and faithful love. Even before we knew how to call on HIs name, God was calling us. While we were still sinners, St. Paul wrote, Christ died for us. It is not our repentance that persuades God to be merciful to us; it is God’s mercy that leads us to repentance. What we find when we humble ourselves before the Lord, is that Jesus is already bending low, on the ground with us. And as He rises, He raises us up with Him.
This is the whole point of Lent: It is a re-enacting of the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. But this re-enactment is not simply so we remember it; it is so we can realize that as we journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb it is actually God who has come to keep company with us. God with us in our weakness and death; God with us for our victory and resurrection.
Here is a song of confession I wrote with Ian Morgan Cron based on the prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer: