What is Ash Wednesday For?

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

In college, I played on the golf team. One day our assistant coach came to practice with dirt on his forehead. I told him about the dirt, and he told me about the ashes in the shape of a cross.

I’d never heard of Ash Wednesday and was a newly minted follower of Jesus in a Protestant-Reformed-Evangelical-Church. Isn’t Ash Wednesday for Catholics?

For my coach, every year about the same time, he’d go to church and apply ashes on his forehead in the sign of the cross. My coach cussed and said inappropriate things at practice. But the ritual of spreading ashes on his aging face was meaningful. He knew something about grace. 

Years later I realized the importance of Ash Wednesday. Not because it’s a command of Scripture or a “have-to” funneled down from our spiritual leaders. I’ve only taken part in an Ash Wednesday service a handful of times. 

I’m still a Protestant Christian and for many in our tribe Ash Wednesday makes them nervous. It shouldn’t.

Acknowledging the forty days leading up to Resurrection Sunday; with Ash Wednesday, is a wise practice. 

Being a Gen X’er, and a borderline Millennial born in 1979 causes problems. We rebel against tradition, ritual, and authority. Give me honest, real, let me be me, and don’t tell me what to do. Add in an Evangelical-subculture that fears anything sniffing of Catholicism, tradition, confessions, and only The Bible is My Creed, and you have a recipe for a confused soul. 

But Ash Wednesday has become a practice that grounds my life in a generation needing roots. It gives me a foundation to stand on when life feels chaotic. Ash Wednesday brings me low when I feel my ego and pride are getting too high. AW connects me to a community of faith past, present, and future. That we’re not in this alone.

Too many church tribes have tried to make Ash Wednesday more than it is. Borderline magic. At its core AW is about reminders. A reminder I’m ash and dust and going to die. Many traditions when they place the ashes on your head they say: “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” or, “Remember you are dust, and dust you shall return.”

Repent… believe… dust. 

With no structures or traditions in my life I’m a floating soul jumping at every shiny penny. Ash Wednesday reminds me I’m a sinner in need of grace (repent), I have a hard time trusting ultimate realities (believe the Gospel), and I’m finite, weak, and frail (dust). 

Some would say taking part in Ash Wednesday is arcane and oppressive. We don’t need to repent because we’re good, reality is how you want to define it, and live for now, because death is coming, but nothing is after. 

I say AW is life giving. If I’m not careful, I’ll believe I’m good, and have no need for repentance and confession, despite all the data proving otherwise. Without practices like AW I might believe that sin, evil, and death has the last say. Life is just trouble and toil and suffering under the sun. The cross and resurrection says otherwise. 

If I’m not careful, I’ll believe I can do anything I put my mind to. My mind, body, and soul have no limits. Who can stop me? But I’ve been in enough hospital rooms and done enough funerals to know we’re all dust and shadows. I’ve experienced enough sorrow and suffering in my life that proves positive thinking and exercise won’t halt death. Here today and gone tomorrow.  

My heart is prone to wander... Lord I feel it. My golf coach knew it. And millions of others do to.

Ash Wednesday is not a have-to. There’s no command of Scripture that says it’s something we must do, or else. We have tremendous freedom in how we participate, or not. 

This year, I won’t apply the ashes to my head in a formal service, or from a pastor.

But I will pray and tell God I’m sorry for what I thought, did, said, in the last twenty-four hours. I will read the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, and remember I’m dust, a shadow, and finite. 

I will thank God that despite my dustiness, sinfulness, I know I’m loved because of the gospel. I’m going to pray and work knowing justice and resurrection are coming one day. The work of the God-Man tells me so.

Ash Wednesday is not a have-to or should

Rather an invitation to re-frame my heart towards hope.