Ash Wednesday and the Practice of Lent

This morning, we gathered for a brief, informal Ash Wednesday service. As a liturgical church, we embrace the historic church calendar as a way to organize our worship gatherings and congregational ministries. So what is Ash Wednesday, and what does it look like to practice the Lenten season as Protestants?

Lent is the six-and-a-half week season leading up to Good Friday and Easter. It is a time for repentance through self-examination and renewal through identification with the journey of Jesus. We follow him from the Upper Room (John 13-17) to the Garden of Gethsemane and onward to our trial and crucifixion. It’s a time for prayer, fasting, and giving ourselves away. At Lent, we say, “Not my will but yours be done.”

It’s of huge spiritual value that we recover the spiritual intent of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten spiritual season. Faith is not simply a belief system; it’s an active embodiment, a life lived out in true practice in prayer, fasting, and giving ourselves away. And these are not just impersonal rituals; this is an engaging, demanding, committed relationship.

In Lent, we’re doing battle against four things: Laziness in our spiritual life; Negativity in our outlook/attitude toward circumstances; Lust for power and comfort; and Destructive words, actions, and thoughts.

Those four things are replaced through relationship and virtues: Wholeness in our spiritual life; Humility in our outlook toward circumstances; Patience in the waiting; Love—sincere care for others. (See Bruce Weber's Ancient-Future Faith.)

ASH WEDNESDAY

Thousands of years ago, the church began the practice of Ash Wednesday, centering on the themes remembrance and repentance. It is the somber day where we Remember that we will die and we Repent of our sin. (I’m convinced that when pastors came up with Ash Wednesday in the 4th Century, it was to have a therapeutic outlet for our own daily encounters with sin, grief and hopelessness. Each year, we can have one utterly depressing service.)

As Christians, we don’t have to search for clever things to say about pain, suffering and death. We have our own experience, we have the experience of our church family, and we have the Scriptures, which speak profoundly into the human problem. We each have our own personal wounds and we carry with us the wounds of our church family: Sickness (anxiety, depression, chronic pain, cancer and disease); Brokenness (broken marriages, broken homes, broken hope and the worst form—loneliness); and Death (miscarriages, family deaths, and spiritual deadness apart from Christ). 

We also know pain, suffering and death because we have God’s Word, and the holy Scriptures that are brutally honest about corruption, sin and loss. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and this is one of them. Death has lost its sting, but death still stings. Death has been swallowed up in victory, but we’re all still one call away from tragedy.

REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE

One of the classic Ash Wednesday texts is Psalm 90, written by Moses, who was no stranger to the hardship of life. Orphaned as a baby, a foreigner in a heathen country, he killed a man and fled to the hills. Then God appears to him, and instead of crushing him, calls him to ministry. God uses him to deliver the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and into… The wilderness. 40 years with the Israelites: they’re sad, they’re whiney, they’re writing songs about how no one understands them—they’re the original hipsters. From the wilderness, where food and water were scarce, heat and cold were constant, and with two million people looking to him for deliverance, Moses turns his face toward God, and writes Psalm 90. 

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
   throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
   or you brought forth the earth and the world,   
   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Moses starts with an acknowledgement that God is God— he is everlasting, he is Creator, he is our dwelling place. And now he pours out his prayer to God:

3 You turn men back to dust,
     saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”
4 For a thousand years in your sight       
     are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death;      
     they are like the new grass of the morning—
6 though in the morning it springs up new,
     by evening it is dry and withered.

The Bible is not silent about the hardship of life, the reality of suffering and the curse of death. Moses reminds us that we will die. To our eternal God, even a thousand years is like the falling and rising of the sun. So God is eternal but we are very much finite. We are swept away; we grow, dry out and wither; we are cut down.Moses continues:

9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
     we finish our years with a moan.
10 The length of our days is seventy years—
     or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
     for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

So life is short but even the days that we do have are filled with trouble and sorrow. 70 or 80 years—gone in a moment. This is what we say: “Time flies! Where did the time go?” In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis asks why we have such trouble keeping track of time.

“It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.”

Moses knew there was more to life than momentary suffering and certain death. So he finishes his prayer:

13 Relent, O LORD! How long will it be?
     Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
     that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Moses’ simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy!” Don’t let us suffer forever. Have compassion on us. Satisfy us with your love; let us experience joy and gladness—even in this mess. Moses is praying for what God has already promised!

REPENT OF YOUR SINS

God promises are clear and compelling throughout Scripture. God promises salvation for all who repent of sin. Repentance is turning from one way completely to another—not just a partial turn, but a complete and decisive, 180-degree turn. It is not just admitting you are sinful, that’s a partial turn; it’s also trusting in Christ.

God promised the prophet Isaiah (30:15, 18):

In repentance and rest is your salvation,
   in quietness and trust is your strength…
The Lord longs to be gracious to you;
   he rises to show you compassion.

Repentance is not just something you do once to free yourself from God’s wrath; it is a lifestyle of turning from sin and trusting in Christ. Jesus made this invitation, which holds true today (Matthew 11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

REST IN CHRIST

Christianity makes sense of our weariness and our burdens, and it also invites us to the One in whom we can find rest. So while you remember that you will die, and repent of your sins, you can now truly rest in Christ. 

You can rest in Christ because you are now freely accepted by God. If you haven’t fully received God’s grace in Jesus, then you cannot fully rest. But from a position of rest and security, we enjoy a holistic, full, blessed life with God; what the Hebrew writers called “shalom.” You don’t have to pull yourself together; you don’t even have to suffer well. You can suffer poorly, because Jesus suffered well.

In Christ, we can rest even while fighting our decaying bodies, while attending funeral after funeral. In the 18th Century, a Christian poet riddled with depression wrote a famous hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way,
  His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,     
  And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines     
  Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,      
  And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,      
  The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break      
  In blessings on your head.

Judge not the LORD by feeble sense,      
  But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,     
  He hides a smiling face.

COVERED BY THE CROSS

The ashes traditionally imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday help us remember that we have sinned and we will die. We return to the dust from whence we came.

And throughout the Bible, a person’s face is a significant theme—it’s his or her true self, representing our identity as well as our deepest emotions. When Cain killed Abel, God marked his face as a curse. Moses hid his face from God because he knew he was full of sin. And Jesus called the religious people of his day “hypocrites,” an acting term for putting a mask over your true face.

The Cross is a symbol of both shame and grace, and whether it's a literal cross as on Ash Wednesday or the invisible reality of its power over our lives, we can wear it on our faces proudly. Psalm 34 says:

4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me;     
      he delivered me from all my fears.
5 Those who look to him are radiant;      
     their faces are never covered with shame.

This Cross is a reminder that Christ was covered with shame so that we can be covered with grace. The truest thing about us—our faces—are no longer covered with shame; now we are covered by the Cross.