In last week’s article, our Director of Worship and Music, Meghan Gobrogge, invited us all to take part in this year’s online, interactive worship for Ash Wednesday. That service will launch on Facebook and YouTube tomorrow evening.
Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which lasts 40 days, minus Sundays—which are always seen as days of celebration and resurrection, even during Lent. “Ash Wednesday” get its name because of the ashes customarily placed on the forehead of worshipers during the service (often in the sign of the cross).
Why ashes? In biblical times and down through history ashes have been a sign of mortality and repentance. In Job 42:4-5, for example, after Job is confronted by God, he says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job sees God and sees his own sin and responds in repentance by sitting among the ashes. While we do not physically “sit among the ashes” on Ash Wednesday (even less so during a pandemic!), we are invited to reflect and pray and sit in repentance.
The ashes can also remind us of our mortality. Each year in the past, when I have imposed ashes on the foreheads of the people I pastor, I remind each one, “Remember that you're dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is truly one of the most meaningful services for me every year.
Another role ashes can play in our lives is to call to mind our cleansing of sin—as if we have been purified with fire and all that is evil or unclean about us has been burned away.
In my experience, for many Evangelicals, it is tempting to see Ash Wednesday as a morbid affair. Some may even see it as something we who know Christ need not bother with, but there is something here we dare not miss. Yes, we have been forgiven. The grace of God is sufficient for all of our sins, past, present, and future. No, we need not wallow in shame because we fall short. But repentance is an important part of our walk with Christ, and we also dare not forget the sacrifice of Christ made on our behalf. We dare not forget, either, that Christ came not only to secure a place for us in heaven, but to teach us a new and better way to live—abundant life now. As we are discovering (or re-discovering) in our study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount each Sunday, transformation can be costly. Christoformity is challenging. And abundant life does not simply arrive. It takes vision, intentionality, and the means to do so.
Ultimately, Ash Wednesday is about looking back in gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ and looking forward in hope because God is with us, still—leading us, guiding us, sustaining us, and fulfilling his promises to us. It is a time to give thanks for our redemption in Christ and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. I hope you will join us on February 17 for our Ash Wednesday service on YouTube and Facebook.
- Pastor Stacey Littlefield