upper room daily devotions

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday is finally here. I hope you had a great time yesterday living it up before the official beginning of Lent. Pancakes? Parties? Beads? Beer? However you celebrated, I hope it filled you up and got you ready for Lent. Today, we mark the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Christians everywhere will head to their churches for meditation, confession, and the imposition of ashes. This day marks us all as equals in God's eyes. It reminds us of our mortality and of the precious gift of life. It is one of my favorite days on the Christian calendar.

As a Protestant pastor, I hear people complain that Ash Wednesday feels foreign to them. And, it is true, that many Protestants have not observed this day with regularity. People who haven't grown up in the church at all tell me that Ash Wednesday doesn't make sense to them. What do we do with this slightly strange custom?

Ash Wednesday is a beautiful observance of the equality of humankind and a powerful call to us to discern God in our lives. But where do the ashes come from? Why do we use them? In 2 Samuel Tamar puts ashes on her head and tears her clothes as she grieves violence done to her, as she laments the harm that she has experienced (2 Sam 13:18-20). In the Book of Esther, Mordecai, deep in lament, puts on a sackcloth and pours ashes on his head (Esther 4:1-3). Ashes signify a terrible wrong, a deep mourning, a desire for change, the brutal truth of mortality. Ashes are the left-overs from a purifying fire. They are remnants. On Ash Wednesday, Christians place ashes on our heads as a sign of lament that life, our world, and our lives are not all that they could be. We put them on our foreheads as a desire to find right relationship with God. This desire sends us on our Lenten journey.

I also see in the imposition of ashes a levelling of the playing field. In the world, some of us are rich and some are poor. Some of us have privilege and some do not. When the ashes are placed on our heads, we are marked by God. The ashes show what the world often ignores - we are all equal in God's eyes. All of us have fallen short of perfection in love. And all of us are equal recipients of God's love and grace. Personally, the ashes remind me that I have only so many days to live fully in God's grace before I leave this world. As a mortal, I am the dust of the earth, and back to the earth I shall return some day. In the meantime, I am grateful that God extends mercy and love to me every day. Every day I have the opportunity to right my wrongs and to celebrate the goodness in creation and in me. No one is better than I am; I am better than no one else.

Ashes on our heads are not signs of piety gone wild! They are signs of our humility in the world. They are signs of God's love. They are signs of our mortality. They invite us into Lent and put us on a path of spiritual discernment during these forty days of wilderness.

If you have not been a participant in Ash Wednesday in the past, find a service and sit in meditation, hear the proclamation from Joel that the Day of the Lord is near. Hear his urgency as he cries, "Rend your hearts, not your clothing" (Joel 2:13). "Blow the trumpet... sanctify the fast; call a solemn assembly" (Joel 2:15). Joel doesn't invite us on this journey. Joel cries to us with urgency. Hearing his cry in worship or listening to Isaiah 58:1-12 is a powerful reflection on our lives and on God's claim on them.

Ash Wednesday brings us into the season of preparation for Easter. During these forty days, Christians are sent into the wilderness of discernment seeking God's presence in our lives and in our world. The call on Christians is to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It's oh so much more than giving up chocolate.

Read here for more information on Ash Wednesday.
Go here to read the scriptures for Ash Wednesday.

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