On Ash Wednesday and Lent

Today, March 9, is Ash Wednesday marking the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 day season in the church that leads up to Easter.

Lent is an uncomfortable time. It's supposed to be. It's a time our souls desperately need. For years and years and years, followers of Jesus have spent this time getting ready for Easter -- preparing themselves -- being intentional about doing so. And so together, we're called to do the same thing. We're called during this season of Lent to take a long, hard look at ourselves and realize that God is God and we are not. We realize that we are a broken people. That we have, so often, turned away from God and left Jesus out of the mix of our lives.

There are two main themes of Ash Wednesday and throughout the entire Lenten journey.

First: Our mortality. We're going to die. We come face to face with our mortality and everything it means to be human and to not be God. We acknowledge that we come from ashes and that's how our bodies will return to the earth. (And that's why today is called Ash Wednesday.) To represent this, typically on Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the forehead or hand of a person. The person "imposing" the ashes will say something like, "From dust you came, to dust you will return..."

Second: Repentance. Turning back to God. We often hear the word, "repent" during this day and season and we understand that many hear that word and cringe. We hear cries from people on soapboxes on street corners who shout, "REPENT! REPENT!" But what does it mean? All it means is "to turn." To turn to life. To the source of life. The thinking is that we have so often turned our faces and backs from God and in this time of repentance, we're turning from darkness to light. From isolation to community. And from self-centeredness to an all-encompassing love.

It's a spring cleaning of sorts for our souls. Ash Wednesday is meant to be the catalyst for this season of spring cleaning. Think of our souls as a house that needs some cleaning. We often fill the rooms of our souls with schedules and work and our social lives and we leave little room for God. God gets the junk drawer in the kitchen.

But what would it mean for us to clear out a little bit of the clutter in our lives and do some spring cleaning of our own? What would it mean to be intentional about taking time to be with God?

This is also why, often, we hear of people "giving up" things for Lent. The whole idea is that in doing so, we make room for God. It's not easy. And we don't have to give something up. Instead, we could take something on -- a discipline like journaling, reading the Bible, taking time to build relationships with friends or people with whom we've lost touch. (Here's a great post by author Rachel Held Evans with 40 ideas for "spring cleaning" during Lent.)

So the bottom line is this: Ash Wednesday is all about taking time to remember who and whose we are. And remembering who God is. We remember that we're going to die. And we're intentional about making space for God. We're turning back to God as we prepare our hearts and minds for Easter.

Again, it's uncomfortable and it may involve thinking about some things we don't want to think about, but we do it as a community and with the grace of God -- meaning, as we contemplate our own brokenness, and return -- and look ahead, we receive the mercy and grace of God.

Hear the good news: We are going to die. How is this good news? Well, we'll just have to wait and see...

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who repent : Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Scripture we used for our Ash Wednesday Service

Psalm 51:1-17 (NRSV)

Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
   therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
   wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
   and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
   O God of my salvation,
   and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
   and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
   if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (MSG) 

Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—’playactors’ I call them— treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.

And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.

Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

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Here are a few other great articles and resources about Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Ash Wednesday

The Trouble (and Blessing) of Lent

Preparing for Lent

Experiencing Lent Beyond Fasting

Lenten Zerberts

Lent and Fasting from the Voice in Your Head

40 Ideas for Lent

Lent 101

Lenten Resources

If you have articles and other resources to share, post them in the comments section!