Today, I wanted to repost this article on Ash Wednesday from 2013. Join us tonight for our supper and service at 6:30 PM
I don’t know if many know that I am a cradle Presbyterian. That means I was born a Presbyterian and for the most part have always worshiped as a Presbyterian. Beyond that I was raised in a Presbyterian Church that was influenced by a Dutch Reformed mindset. As such we were less than liturgical. The only liturgical traditions I remember were Maundy Thursday and Advent. I don’t recall growing up with any traditions around Ash Wednesday and Lent in general. That’s not to say they weren’t present, I just don’t recall them being very important in the life of the congregation.
In fact I distinctly remember one of the “pillars of the church” say, with great distain in his voice, that Ash Wednesday and Lent were “Catholic Things”. Yet I remember looking at all the Catholics, and now I have come to learn, some Lutherans and Episcopalians, running around with ash crosses on their foreheads. I never felt left out and actually thought how strange of a thing.
Then I discovered the resurgence of liturgical practices in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. I didn’t know that when the reformers did their work they might have thrown out the baby with the bath water. When used correctly, some of those “Catholic Things” can actually be helpful in our life and faith. With Ash Wednesday being tomorrow I thought I would talk about how the tradition of Ash Wednesday and the larger practice of Lent might help us connect with our faith.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is one of the movable dates on the liturgical calendar and is 46 days before Easter. It begins the 40 days of the Lenten period of fasting and prayer. The name comes from the practice of placing or imposing ashes on the foreheads of participants. This is done as a reminder of human mortality and also as a sign of mourning and repentance. Throughout Scripture and in many ancient cultures the use of ashes was a common practice to express mourning. Ash Wednesday is intended to be a sign to the world, and more importantly, to God that we know that we are sinful. The words used when ashes are imposed upon the forehead are striking; “Remember from dust you were made and to dust you shall return.” For some this might be a morbid concept, after all we don’t like to think about our mortality.
I believe that this reminder can be an important moment. The world and our sinful nature have sold us on the idea that we are the be all and end all of everything. As those who have experienced God and God’s glory, we know that we pale in comparison. Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period that follow can be a highly useful way to reorient our mindset to a Godly view of creation.
Ash Wednesday and Lent also help to heighten the joy of Easter. When we are honest with ourselves and God about how we have sinned, the fact that God chooses us is even more spectacular. This is perhaps the most powerful reality I experienced when I discovered the deep meaning of these liturgical practices. Like many people, I grew up with Easter being a happy day where we heard about Jesus’ resurrection. The fact of the matter is that for many years the reason for that resurrection was missing or at least not as powerfully present in my life.
I know that reflecting on your mortality and sin can be a real downer. Let’s face it, we want our faith to be flowers and hand holding more than we want it to confront us with our sin. While I don’t want to err on the side that many denominations do and focus solely on this aspect of our life, I do think we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore it. So this Ash Wednesday I invite you to put on the ashes and mourn our loss. I invite you to reflect during Lent on the fact that while humanity has done some wonderful things we have also done some very horrible things. Then I believe that when the Day of Resurrection arrives and God conquers sin through Christ, it will hold an even more powerful joy.