Why Ash Wednesday Matters

If you want a faith worth celebrating, it has to start here.

This year’s Ash Wednesday presents a bit of a problem—it’s also my son’s sixth birthday. So, somehow, we have to figure out a way to make the imposition of ashes after his birthday dinner a logical (and festive and fun, maybe even) tie-in. And somehow, we have to weasel a way to combine celebrating my son’s birth on a day designed to keep his eyes on his eventual death. Cheers to that!

But of course, even if Ash Wednesday weren’t my son’s birthday this year, it would still present a problem. It always does. If the doldrums of winter haven’t beaten you down by now, Ash Wednesday—with its laser focus on our morbidity and depravity—is bound to do it. For many of us, it doesn’t take a birthday to tempt us to skip right over this troubling first day of the troubling season of Lent and stick to the happier occasions. After all, Easter’s a-comin’ right?

On Ash Wednesday, we’re invited to look at our missteps and our regrets and offer them all to God who not only accepts them but transforms them.

But there’s a very good reason not to skip Ash Wednesday and all its gloom and trouble, tempting through it may be. Even on a birthday—especially on one, maybe. Because as wonderful and joyous as I want to make my son’s birthday and as much as I want him to know we are thrilled he was born into this world and how worth celebrating he is, I also want him to know that taking time to mark ourselves with a sign of our grief and our sin and our suffering isn’t that bad of a way to end a birthday. It’s actually a pretty good gift.

Not that he’ll catch or appreciate any of this. Not at six. In fact, for many of us much older, we still have a hard time drudging through this dark day or grasping why it’s significant at all.

But in time, it’ll sink in. We all grow to understand that, just as the wonders of life are worth blowing up balloons and eating cake for, so are the hardships of life worth noting. Especially if we want to live a life and a faith worth celebrating.

Of course, this is what Ash Wednesday is all about. Of course, not every one of us will feel much like heading to church on Wednesday or being told that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And not many of us like to spend much time communally acknowledging our sin or our shame or our suffering or our sorrow. Even still, Ash Wednesday reminds us this acknowledgment is central to our faith.

This year, my church, along with many others, invites folks to mark the first day of Lent with a time of music, quiet prayer and the imposition of ashes at an Ash Wednesday service and offers the hope that “this time of worship will help us walk more closely with Jesus through the Lent and Easter season.” With this, we offer the reminder that “ashes are a symbol of our repentance, of our desire to turn back to God; ashes demonstrate our solidarity of with Jesus, and with his journey to the cross and through the grave; and the sign of the cross in ashes is Christ’s own signature on us, that we belong to him.”

In sending His Son to suffer with and for us, God declared that our suffering and our celebration are intertwined.

Yes, ashes announce an understanding of our mortality and need for repentance, but at the same time, they proclaim our solidarity with Jesus. They declare our faith in a God who not only wipes us free from sin but who takes the offerings of our broken hearts and our fears and turns them into hope and promise.

All this captured in one smudge—one smear of the ashen cross on my forehead that serves as a symbol of a most poignant paradox of our faith: God brings life out of the sin and suffering. It signifies that He did this with every heavy step Jesus took toward the cross and that He does this with us, with every burdened and broken step we take in this life.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we’re invited to a time to look at our missteps and our regrets, our longings and our losses, and offer them all to God, who not only accepts them but transforms them.

After all, in sending His Son to suffer with and for us, God declared that our despair and our hope, our sin and our salvation, our suffering and our celebration are intertwined. He declared it’s through one that we get to the other. It’s through confession that we find forgiveness and through lament that we find healing. And Ash Wednesday offers us opportunity to do both—publicly and communally.

And it’s through this—through the smear of the ashen cross on our foreheads—that we ultimately celebrate the most poignant paradox of our faith: God draws our very hope and life—the cross—right out of our very sin and suffering—the ashes.

In the end, it’s this day of grief that leads us into the biggest cause for celebration.

14 Comments

Keri Wyatt Kent

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Keri Wyatt Kent commented…

I grew up in an evangelical tradition that did very little with Ash Wednesday or Lent. In recent years, it's become a more significant season to me. This year, I'm trying to think of it as a time to create extra space, and filling that space not with busyness or stuff, but with the love of Jesus. A group of us are studying that love over the next 40 days if anyone wants to join us at http://keriwyattkent.com/blog/

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Jeremy DeLara

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Jeremy DeLara commented…

My question may be a bit ignorant. But when i look at the new testament and the early church, where is the place where they celebrated ash wednesday or lent? I don't mean to sound facetious or ask rhetorical questions, i sincerely wish to know. Where do we get this practice from biblically? or did this come straight out of the catholic church as something that "seemed like a good idea" but not necessary something we find in the bible?

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Kirk Dickinson

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Kirk Dickinson replied to tre kendrick's comment

#1 Here is a little article that I recently put together on my facebook page about Lent:
https://www.facebook.com/notes/kirk-dickinson/what-is-lent-and-why-chris...

Here is an article that I just read today about Ash Wednesday.
http://www.beaconoftruth.com/ash_wednesday.htm

Celebrate them if you wish, but I will not be celebrating Ash Wednesday or Lent, and I will not be eating Ham on Easter. :)

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Kirk Dickinson

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Kirk Dickinson replied to tre kendrick's comment

Kendrick, about the music part. I am a bass player in 3 different Christian bands. I struggle with some of this greatly. I think there are some music that has no place in the church. One of the greatest Praise and Worship leaders of all time was Bach, who wrote completely newmusic every week for his church for years on end. His music was considered radical at the time.

To me Christian music performed in the church needs to:
Glorify God
Be scriptural accurate
Have a message
Be easy to sing along to

I'll have to think about this more. But those are my first thoughts.

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Christopher May

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Christopher May replied to Kirk Dickinson's comment

There is no where in the Bible where we read about the early church celebrating Christmas, or Easter does that make our observances of these seasons wrong?

I think having a season that is centered on identifying with Christ... where we are challenged to practice self sacrifice, self denial, and taking up the cross is a good thing. Isn't this the call of all disciples? I am very thankful for this season and the means of grace it has become for my own personal walk with Christ.

I think as Protestants we often overlook and do not emphasis enough the suffering and sacrifice Christ went through, or the reason he went through it. Many churches don't even observe Good Friday... they go from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, skiping over Good Friday, the observance of Christ's sacrifice and death on the cross... Easter has no meaning apart from the cross. There is no resurrection without death... and this truth is as important in the life of the individual christian as well. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the weight and seriousness of sin. It reminds us that we are all powerless to save ourselves and that we are in desperate need of the savior... A savior who went to the cross so that we could have freedom from sin and experience resurrection life.

Observing the entire season of lent has given me a bigger appreciation for Easter. It has given me a deeper understanding of both the wondrous cross and the empty grave.

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tre kendrick

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tre kendrick replied to Christopher May's comment

Kirk,

The link to you facebook page did not work. Also, the second link hardly constitutes a reliable source in my opinion as there are no sources cited for most of its wildest claims. Additionally, there are numerous factual inaccuracies in it, we could go through these line by line if you would like (email?). Perhaps you can point out some clearer sources?

Now, about the music. I actually wasn't referring at all to music played in a worship setting, sorry if that wasn't clear. I was asking about whether or not it would be akin to a pagan syncretism by your standard for Christians making use of music that was conceived in a secular setting. If it is objectionable to celebrate pagan festivals in a context of a Christian liturgy (which is actually not happening with Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.) then it would certainly be objectionable to practice them at home, right?

By your standard, Christianized music with secular roots/origins would be no more fitting for a Christian worship setting than for personal use. Unless, it was entirely of a novel origin (the Bach example) and unless there was some Bible verse that commissioned one to do so too (just guessing there).

My thought on the matter is that Christians ought to Christian-ize everything. Just like we are called to Christian-ize people so that they serve a new purpose, so we Christian-ize things like buildings, music, holidays, the calendar, etc. Everything finds a new meaning and is re-appropriated to tell of God's love. Every thing now points to a meaning beyond itself, just like every Christian points to a meaning beyond itself. When somebody converts and is baptized, we don't go around pointing out that they cannot be allowed because of what they were. Rather, we say "the old has gone and new has come."

Example: Funk music - highly sensual in origin, pioneered by musicians merely looking to create a soundtrack to cocaine fueled orgies, highly pagan... finds a new meaning and usage with Israel Houghton.

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tre kendrick

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tre kendrick replied to Kirk Dickinson's comment

The ashes are not to "show" that we are fasting. The ashes are not fasting. If they were, we would wear them all 40 days?! How is it any different that lifting your hands during worship songs?

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Ciarán Kelleher

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Ciarán Kelleher commented…

A really beautiful article explaining what this tradition means and the power behind its symbol.

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Taylor Webster

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Taylor Webster commented…

I was similarly struck by the juxtaposition between Ash Wednesday and Valentine's day - here's some reflections in a similar vein.

http://twentybydesign.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/ashen-valentines/

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