Day of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On this day, we embark on a journey toward redemption, a journey toward Easter.

Lent spreads over forty mornings and evenings, beginning today, the day of ashes, and concluding with that beautiful sunrise when we proclaim with loud and joyous voices, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” For these forty days (excluding the six Sundays we will encounter because each of these is a “mini-Easter”), we renounce evil (sin that binds us or distractions that pull at us or lies we have believed) by a physical act of repentance. We give something up (chocolate, sex, TV). Or we take on a discipline (praying the Hours, serving in a shelter). Essentially, we allow Jesus, physical God, to meet us in physical ways.

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent (or Good Friday or Advent or anything else that might align us with those “Christians with the smells and bells”). Like any good thing, these practices can of course be abused, tempting us to flex our spiritual muscle or to try to earn kudos from God. However, I’ve found that I need these physical reminders, these sacramental encounters, to guide my mind and my heart and my body deeper toward Jesus.

A friend of mine who is Anglican priest told me (in flabbergasted tone) how put off he was by a fellow pastor who complained that Ash Wednesday was too somber, too focused on sin. Out of 365, he wanted to know, can’t we have just one single day to repent?

These practices are certainly no end to themselves. They aren’t intended to focus on us: our rigor, our righteousness, our devotion. These sacramental practices intend to turn us toward Jesus, to stir our heart toward our desperate need for a long redemption.

This, then, is the question for us to ask these forty days that will follow: where do we need God’s redemption? Where do we need resurrection? Where is the broken place that – unless God heals us – we are truly without hope?

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For me, I want to be released from myself, from my fear. I want to turn away from all the noise I allow to distract me from the work God wants to do in my heart. I want to truly believe that Jesus is life, my life. I want to embrace my full salvation in Jesus. To do this, I need the ashes, the reminders that I am marked by Jesus. I need these concrete actions: turning off both the computer and my appetite for food each night at 9 (the discipline Miska has chosen for me – each of us choose for the other). I need my community to journey with me these days. It’s too long to go alone.

I hope to continue this Lenten conversation with at least one post each week of the journey. I hope to share more of what God will be stirring in my heart. Join me these forty days of hoping and waiting and repenting, these days of believing in Jesus and moving toward resurrection.

We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ. -Thomas Merton

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