When I was single, my friends and I would attend Ash Wednesday services at church, then go out for something to eat. [Clearly, I did not belong to a church that emphasized fasting.] As we sat around the table at Village Inn, we’d remark that perhaps we shouldn’t be sitting here, with our ash-marked foreheads, eating pie. Ash Wednesday seemed to call for something more somber. But there we were, marked for Christ, yet celebrating.
But that is what Ash Wednesday is all about.
Ash Wednesday services are sobering. The ashes remind us of both our mortality and our sin. Play time is over. It’s time to sit up and pay attention. We’re taken back to the Garden of Eden--to man’s fall. “From dust you are and to dust you will return,” Genesis 3:19 reminds us. With bluntness, scripture tells us that our earthly life is finite.
Ash Wednesday services are honest. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” cried John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea. (Matt 3:2) Jesus preached this very same message throughout his earthly ministry. (Matt 4:17) The ashes we wear are an echo of the sackcloth and ashes worn in repentance. (Job 42:6, Matt 11:21) Ash Wednesday causes us to be honest with ourselves, to face our sinful nature and admit our need for a Savior. With the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we publicly proclaim this fact.
Ash Wednesday services are hopeful. In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister writes, “Clearly, the voice of Lent is not a dour one. It is a call to remember who we are and where we have come from and why. The voice of Lent is the cry to become new again, to live on newly no matter what our life has been like until now and to live fully.” While we have sinned, we are not without hope. As believers we are saved through Jesus, who forgives our sins and redeems us through his death and resurrection. At the end of the service, everyone in the sanctuary bears the mark of hope, the ashen cross on our brows.
Ash Wednesday services are joyful. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, we have new life in Him. Scripture remind us that God remembers His people, that he will forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more. (Heb 8:12) Ash Wednesday causes us to confess, to turn away from sin. We hear the good news. We wear the cross. Easter is coming.
We silently exit the sanctuary, foreheads cross-marked for Christ, hearts sweet with celebration.