This year our church will observe Ash Wednesday for the first time. In the Church calendar, Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent, the period of 40 days leading up to Easter when the Church prepares to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection by entering a time of fasting and repentance. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of marking people’s foreheads with the sign of the cross with ashes.
To practice of using ashes goes all the way back to the Old Testament where people would wear sackcloth and ashes to signify mourning and repentance. There are records that the early church had similar practices and we have records as far back as the middle ages when this practice was instituted to start the Lenten season.
Growing up, my particular Christian tradition did not observe Ash Wednesday, however, I think there is a lot of value to observing this day. You see, Ash Wednesday is designed to begin a season of repentance, when we are meant to consider our own brokenness and mortality, some people even decide to fast from something during the season of Lent.
This is not done out of some masochistic sense of guilt. Quite the opposite, I think that there is something profoundly liberating in being able to articulate our brokenness aloud, when we know that we are fully loved and forgiven in spite of it.
Because we are broken.
I am, you are.
And we know it too. Underneath the veneer of our Instagram stories where we are always having fun and living our best life, we live with the reality of who we really are: the good and bad, the joy and the grief, the moments when we live up to our highest ideals, and the moments when we fall utterly short of them and give in to our darkest impulses.
And there is an incredible amount of pressure and anxiety that comes with having to always present our best self to the world and pretend like we have it all together.
Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, gives us room to take off the façade without any shame, because we do it together. We all confess we are broken, we all confess we don’t have it together, and we all come to the table together, to remember the sacrifice by which we have been forgiven.
Ash Wednesday is a gift, it is an opportunity to lay down the burden of perfectionism that today’s world makes us carry.
Jesus once said:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28–30 (NIV)
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to do precisely this.
We confess our sins together. We get to articulate aloud our own brokenness by reciting a prayer of repentance. Then we walk forward, receive ashes on our forehead to remind us of our brokenness and mortality, only to look around the room and see that we are in good company, that we are all broken and mortal, so we don’t need to pretend.
But we also don’t need to be ashamed, because then we walk forward again, and receive bread dipped in wine, and hear someone telling us “This is Christ’s body broken for you” and “This is Christ’s blood shed for you” the ultimate evidence of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of His children.
I heard someone once say: “the bread and the wine are not for the worthy, they are for the hungry.” If this is true, then entering into Lent by observing Ash Wednesday is the perfect way of reminding ourselves, and demonstrating to others, that we too, are hungry, and if we are, then there is a place at the table for us.