Growing up as a kid, like many kids, I paid no mind the church calendar; unless it was Christmas. I was a kid after all. When I was in high school, I began to explore my faith. I was enrolled in a Catholic school, while being confirmed into a Presbyterian Church. That's when I began to notice the weird (to me) practice every Lent of my classmates walking around with smudges of ash on their forehead.
So what exactly is Ash Wednesday? For some of my Protestant friends they find the day odd, and very Catholic. I do agree there is no biblical directive for us to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Just like there isn't a directive to celebrate Christmas or Easter. But there is at its core a great biblical theology of creation, sin, our mortality, grace and death. It calls us to community in our shared brokenness and the humility of our mortality.
So we are entering the Lenten season. Christian’s worldwide mark the beginning of this season with Ash Wednesday. A day we make a visible mark on our foreheads with ashes, to remind ourselves of our mortality and need for repentance and look forward to the redemptive work of the cross. It is a beautiful and meaningful day.
Two years ago I entered into Ash Wednesday full of doubt and anger. I was angry at a few things. I was angry at things going on in my family, my marriage and my journey to ordination. I was angry at God. Expectation that it had for my life, my journey, my marriage, my calling to ministry were not, did not go the way I thought they should. I was racked with self-doubt.
Doubt in my abilities, and ultimately doubt in my faith in a God that I have deeply come to know as loving and accepting. Forget it I said; forget you God for not living up to MY expectations! (I was tempted to use another F word)
I have the privileged to spend Ash Wednesday the last few years in the hospital dispensing ashes as part of my training and work as a hospital chaplain. That first year; I was tired, I was beaten, and I was discouraged. I came into the week on the heels of being passed over for a pulpit position. But I came into Ash Wednesday open. Open to see if God was still active. I dropped my expectations. The Holy Spirit was moving within me.
As I stood in the chapel of the hospital for the last hour of my day, I had two experiences that quelled my doubt and anger, that reminded me that Jesus has already accepted me for who I am. The first was with a hospital employee. Whether she was a nurse, doctor or administrator or even just visitor, who knows, but we shared an intimate divine moment. She approached for ashes, I raised my hand, and as I spoke the words "Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return" our eyes were locked. They say the eyes are a window to our soul, and I was looking at a fellow soul. Tears were welling in her eyes. For those brief seconds, deep emotions and intimacy were brought to the surface, and then gone.
The second event happened shortly after. A young family came into the chapel; a father, young son (4 or 5) and a visibly pregnant mother. The father spoke gently to the son "do you want to get ashes?" The boy nodded gleefully. I smiled and ask "do you want to go first?" The boy shyly said no, "I want daddy to go first." Ha, ok I give the father ashes. The mother says ok your turn, I ask the boy if it’s his turn. Again, no, I want mommy to go first. Well, ok then. Mom and dad have now received ashes.
Ok it’s your turn now I say playfully to the boy. Softly I make the sign of the cross and whisper the phrasing (Remember you are dust). The look of Joy in his face was priceless. The parents ask him if he wants to pray, he joyfully says yes and they sit and the boy leads his parents in the most beautiful, honest and innocent prayer. I rested in and was reminded of the power of Paul's letter to the Romans; where sin increased, Grace abounded more; and nothing in life; NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What I appreciate the most about Ash Wednesday it calls us to reflect on our shared frailty and brokenness. We come together and confess our sins, as a community, and visibly display our recognition that we are mere carbon based beings that return to that dirty red clay. (That's a Genesis reference)
So how does this relate to the passage that we read from Matthew? Where Jesus tells us that when we pray or fast, to do it in private, unlike the hypocrites who put their piety on display. It is true, we are making a public, visible mark that we are beginning a time of penitence. Aren’t we kind of like, the hypocrites? I hope not. But that is a question you must ask yourself as we begin this Lenten journey. Am I personally, in my heart seeking truly to turn to God in prayer and repentance? Am I looking to the road to the cross and living to be a better person? Are we trying to be a better follower of Jesus? Because if we are to follow Jesus; we must follow the road to the Cross. And that takes a deep, inward reflection on ourselves. And we mark ourselves, collectively as individuals, together yet separately journeying towards Christ knowing full well that we return to the very dust that God breathed life into.
But that is the great thing. We follow a gracious God. A God that took on our brokenness on the Cross of Jesus. And it's the road to that cross, and the resurrection story that we begin to reflect and pray about on Ash Wednesday. We take the time to reflect on the sacrifice and the service of our savior Jesus Christ and to attempt, however much we fail, to live a life that models his grace and love.
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." Genesis 3:19