Repentance leads to life.
What is Lent? The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word “lengten,” which simply means “spring” — when the days lengthen and new life springs forth. It is a time in which we anticipate the victory of the light and life of Christ over the darkness of sin and death. It is, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, a season of a kind of “happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (just like Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter.
In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.
Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.
How Do We Observe Ash Wednesday?
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. More and more Protestant and even evangelical churches hold some sort of Ash Wednesday services.
Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
Why Should We Observe Ash Wednesday?
There is no biblical commandment that requires us to observe Ash Wednesday. Thus, I believe this one of those practices that Christians are free to observe or not to observe. The theological core of Ash Wednesday is, however, shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace, and salvation.
It also enacts biblical command to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.”
What I value most about Ash Wednesday is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections.
We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.
In Genesis 3:14-19 we read,
The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
When we come to Genesis 3, we encounter a God who curses! He responds to Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the serpent’s treachery decisively. With the pronouncement of each curse and judgment, there is an undoing or reversal of God’s gracious creative works. Adam, who was created from the dust, is now destined to return back to it. Eve, who was created out of Adam, has now become dominated by him. The serpent, who was more crafty than any of the wild animals, is now humiliated, groveling on its belly, eating dust.
In this chapter, we see that sin has affected all of creation.
This text speaks to our desire to overlook our sins. God does not respond lightly to sin. Death entered the world with sin, and all manner of sorrow, suffering, and despair. But the worst of the curse would fall upon a different man many millennia later as Paul said in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Jesus would take upon himself a curse in order to redeem humanity’s status.
Dear Father, I know you cannot take lightly the sins that I commit because you are a God of holiness who loves justice and does not allow evil to go unpunished. But I thank you for your wisdom and mercy in devising a plan that would allow the curse that was rightfully mine to fall upon your Son. In Christ’s Name, Amen.