Today is Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent. Traditionally on Ash Wednesday Christians attend a service and get a cross of ashes smeared on their heads. This symbolizes many things from being a reminder of “from dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), and to repent by wearing “sackcloth and ashes” (Lamentations 2:10). The ashes then demonstrate a recognition of our mortality and need for forgiveness.
Very simply, it is a symbol that we need to depend on God if we believe there is more to this life than, “Eat and drink! Tomorrow we will die!” (Isaiah 22:13). The reading for this week comes from the book of Joel.
Blow the horn in Zion; demand a fast; request a special assembly. Gather the people; prepare a holy meeting; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the groom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep. Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people, and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace, an example of failure among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Joel 2:15-17 (CEB)
Putting ashes on your forehead and/or fasting for Lent are a like blowing a loud trumpet in your life and community. You are declaring to the world that there is more to life than what we see. As the reading for today demonstrates, people leave everything to attend this special event. A bride and groom leave a wedding and the whole family, including nursing infants, show up. The image of the meeting is not your standard worship gathering either. Imagine showing up to church and instead of singing happy worship songs, your pastor knelt on the ground crying and begged for God’s mercy on the community. Pleaded for God to not forget them. Prayed that our hope in God would not be in vain.
Realizing that we have no other hope but in the mercy of God.
This is a special time of year when we make ourselves acutely aware of our own failings and limitations. We wear the ashes as a reminder of our mortality and fast as a reminder that our hope lies in something not of this world. This is, in a sense, open rebellion against the world that promises happiness by buying new things and prolonged life through medicine, makeup and science. While there may be some value to these (antibiotics are a pretty good invention), we are still mortal beings living in a world that is both wildly beautiful and supremely broken. Lent calls us to look elsewhere for mercy and forgiveness. Lent challenges us to place our hope in something more than what this world can offer. To place our hope in God who promised long ago to not forget his people. To not make them a laughing stock among the nations. That even when all seems lost and people might say, “Where is their God?”, that God’s people would still come before him faithfully asking for his mercy.
Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.