What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and Lent is an ancient Christian tradition of having a season of fasting and meditation prior to Easter.
Since the Church is made up of such a diverse set of people, some of us will be very familiar with Ash Wednesday and others won’t be familiar with it much at all.
Some of us grew up in faith contexts where Ash Wednesday was highly emphasized, even ritualized. And because of this we may have very strong associations with it from our past, whether positive or negative.
And others of us, like me, grew up in contexts where Ash Wednesday was hardly mentioned and never observed. And because of this we may very drawn toward or repelled away from it.
Either way, we observe Ash Wednesday as Christians, not out of obligation or tradition. Nor do we observe it to show others how holy and amazing we are as we go about our days after having received ashes.
No, there’s is a deeper reason why we commemorate Ash Wednesday – it is a reminder to us that the brilliant joy of Easter doesn’t come without a great cost.
That cost is that the sinless one, Jesus Christ, had to become sin for us. There could be no greater cost than that.
So Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the time where we examine why Jesus had to pay that cost. And the “Ash” in Ash Wednesday gives us a good clue as to why Jesus had to pay that cost.
In the Bible ashes have two primary associations: 1) one who is repentant would apply ashes to him or herself as a sign of repentance; and 2) the other is that we are mortal: From dust we came and to dust we will return.
So during Lent, and especially on Ash Wednesday, we remember that Jesus paid a great cost to deal with our twin problems of sin and death.
Let’s take an honest look at ourselves, our mortality and sinfulness, and let’s remember the hope found in Jesus that he is making all things new!
Friends, Ash Wednesday is all about honesty…and let’s get real for a minute: being honest can be hard. Let me give you two examples from my life:
When I was probably in second grade I wanted to get a toy that was on the top shelf of my book shelf. So I would climb up the book shelf in order to reach it. When my parents would see me doing this they would tell me to stop because they didn’t want me to fall and get hurt. Well, as you probably have guessed already, I continued to go for that toy on the top shelf anyway. On one particular occasion I climbed up and reached for the toy…grabbed it…and the whole shelf and all of its contents fell on top of me! I cried for help, “Daddy help me! Help me!” And when my Dad came in the room he asked me what happened. I thought for a second and said, “I don’t know…the shelf just fell on me, Dad!”
Another time that being honest was hard was when I had just begun learning to cook after my wife and I were married. The first thing I ever made was a pasta dish that was really yummy! The next day I decided to go big and tried to make stuffed pork loin. I plated the meal and sat it out on the table and it looked great! But when we bit into it was dry as a bleached bone in the sun! After a minute or two my wife looked up at me and lied, saying, “Honey, this is really good!” even though it was more like ten-year old piece of beef jerky than a stuffed pork loin!
Being honest can be tough. And being honest about ourselves and our failings can be especially difficult. So as we observe Ash Wednesday, we might have a hard time being honest about our sinfulness and our mortality. We might not really want to take a long, hard look in the proverbial mirror because we know who will be looking back at us.
But that’s what Ash Wednesday is all about, an honest appraisal of our human condition. And it was this human condition that necessitated that Jesus pay the staggering price he paid for us at Calvary.
In Mark 1.15 we find the basic message of Jesus’ teaching, his mission statement if you will. The following words are found there: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
For the rest of this blog I simply want to look at three parts of this verse in light of Ash Wednesday: the kingdom of God, repentance, and believing the good news.
Kingdom of God
Let’s start with the kingdom of God. This phrase does not refer solely to heaven or the afterlife. Nor does it refer to a physical location with borders and a castle. No. Instead it refers to the reality of the rule of God that Jesus inaugurated when he was alive and that he will bring to fruition when he returns.
The kingdom of God is something that those of us who follow Jesus as king demonstrate with our lives. Those of us who live as subjects of King Jesus are called to live our lives like he really is our king – lives of worship, lives of community, and lives of service; lives of love for God and others.
When viewed in light of Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of the way in which we were allowed to be subjects of King Jesus – he died for us, paving the way for us to become citizens of his kingdom.
So in light of this great grace that has been offered to us, what should we do? We should repent and believe the good news. That’s what Jesus said in Mark 1.15.
And, if you’re like me, then you may be thinking something like this: I repented and believed a long time ago when I first accepted Jesus as my lord and savior. And while that first confession is very important, our repentance and believing doesn’t stop there!
So in light of Ash Wednesday, let’s repent, which means to turn from our ways and toward God’s ways. Let’s repent of the bad things we’ve done, the good we’ve left undone, and the systemic injustices we’ve let slide. Let’s repent of our broken, sinful natures and begin to become more like Jesus through the work and power of the Spirit!
And let’s repent of all the ways we’ve not been honest about our sinfulness and mortality. Let’s repent of pretending to be perfect. Let’s repent of letting our fear of death consume us.
As I was writing this I found this beautiful prayer, which is adapted from Isaiah 58:
We have chosen to fast, not with ashes but with actions, not with sackcloth but in sharing, not in thoughts but in deeds. We will give up our abundance to share our food, home, and friendship. We will share where others hoard. We will free where others oppress. We will heal where others harm. Then God’s light will break out. God’s healing will come. We will find our joy in the Lord. We will be like a well-watered garden. We will be called repairers of broken walls. Together we will feast at God’s banquet table. (From Godspace; slightly altered)
That’s the kind of repentance that Ash Wednesday brings to my mind – turning from our selfish ways and turning toward God’s giving ways.
Believe the Good News
But we’re still left with “believing the good news” in Mark 1.15. In light of Ash Wednesday, what does it mean to believe the good news?
For starters, “believe” isn’t the best translation of the word that Jesus used. In Greek one word stands behind the three English verbs: believe, have faith, and trust. And in most cases, the best translation of this one Greek verb is “trust.”
So what does it mean to trust the good news, especially in light of Ash Wednesday? Well, trust is an active word; it’s not something that I can just do only in my head. Trust requires action.
Living a life that demonstrates that we trust the good news will look like more and more like the life that Jesus lived when he was here on earth. One of my favorite authors, Hugh Halter, says it best: A disciple of Jesus is someone who lives the human life of Jesus in his or her human life.
How do we do that? It’s much simpler than we’ve made it over the years.
In fact, to prove my point I want give you a challenge…
During Lent this year make this your fast: Fall in love with Jesus anew. Each and every day read through half a chapter of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Jot down things that you see Jesus doing. How is he treating others? What does he talk about? What actions does he take? What does he seem care about? Then pray for the Holy Spirit to help you become more like Jesus today than you were yesterday. Ask God to create opportunities for you to demonstrate your trust in the good news where you live, where you work, and where you play.
Treat people like you see Jesus treating people in the Scriptures.
Talk about the things you see Jesus talking about.
Do the things you see Jesus doing.
Care about the stuff you see Jesus caring about.
So on this Ash Wednesday it’s time we were honest with ourselves. We need to live like Jesus is our king by repenting and trusting in the good news! As we look back into our lives and see pain, sin, death, and brokenness, let’s not forget that Jesus died for us so that we could live for him!
Let’s do that brothers and sisters – Let’s live for him!