I did not grow up celebrating Ash Wednesday. I can remember very clearly the first time I ever encountered it, and it wasn’t until my junior year of high school. I was visiting my Aunt Jan in the hospital and everyone started walking around with these weird smudges on the foreheads. To the uninitiated, like myself, the ash looks less like a cross and much more like someone forgot to shower. In the years following this first Ash Wednesday I have come to look forward to Ash Wednesday for a number reasons.
1. Ash Wednesday is public. The public nature of this symbolic act cuts against our normal desire to keep our faith private. The cross of ashes makes us publicly part of a collection of Christians. Unlike our Christian t-shirts, bumper stickers or listening to KLove, these ashes mark us for all the world to see. Our faith is not private.
2. Ash Wednesday is difficult to celebrate. No matter how religious you are, it is always a pain to get to an Ash Wednesday service. As with everything else in our world, it is always easier to not do anything. It’s easier to not show up. Its easier not to think about our sin. Its easier not think about death. Any service that requires we change our rhythms, stay up a little later and look a little goofy is probably good for us.
3. Ash Wednesday is re-orienting. In our world with smart phones and social media, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are only part of the story, and quite honestly the story is not about us. Ash Wednesday stands as a stark reminder that we simply cannot get out of this life alive. Our lives and our very souls hang in the balance, and it’s amazing how easy it is to live as though that’s not the case.
4. Ash Wednesday is humanizing. As a practice, Ash Wednesday tells us the truth about ourselves and connects us to our humanity. In receiving ashes, we stand with the rest of our church. We wait in line, praying and remembering, reflecting on our own brokenness. Finally, we arrive at the altar and we are “welcomed” with the truth that we are dust and we shall return to dust. The human contact of placing ashes on our heads reminds us that we all share in this same fate. Often we think the thing that binds us together as humans is a shared goodness or desire for happiness or something else like this, but Ash Wednesday stands as a reminder that the greatest connection of our humanity is our brokenness. It is our need for redemption that binds us together.
This need for redemption is a common theme in Lent, and one we will return to again and again. We must not rush to the end of the story, but rather, like Job and the prophets we sit with these ashes, in our shared humanity crying out for God’s rescue.