What are your childhood memories about Ash Wednesday?
I grew up in the Congregational tradition and don’t have remember anyone talking about Ash Wednesday or even Lent – at church or at home.
I was vaguely jealous of my Catholic friends who seemed to spend hours discussing what they might “give up” for Lent – candy? Ice cream? TV? What would be an acceptable – but also sustainable for 40 long days – sacrifice? They talked about the challenge of abstaining from meat on Fridays. And then of course there were the ashes – more than slightly embarrassing to the middle school crowd. It was agreed that going to church after school was much preferred than walking around the halls with a dark smudge on your forehead.
But for this bland Protestant, Ash Wednesday came and went – no church service, no sacrifices, no ashes.
These days as a Congregational (UCC) pastor, it is my privilege to help lead a community Ash Wednesday service with two other congregations. It is a pleasure to worship with one’s neighbors but honestly, we also come together out of the realization that this particular service is often not well-attended. It is one of those days when we are grateful for Jesus’ reminder that where even two or three are gathered in his name, he promises to be present.
Why do so few people carve out time for this mid-week service? Partly it’s logistics. Society does not mark this occasion. No one gets time off for Ash Wednesday. Families’ hectic pace of juggling sports and after-school activities does not slow down for this religious observance.
Partly I think it’s the ashes. Who wants to be reminded that “from dust you came and to dust you will return”? The season of Lent has gained the reputation of being a dreary requirement that one must grudgingly endure in order to finally reach the glorious celebration of Easter.
And yet – what if we tried to re-set our attitude about this season of reflection and penitence? What if instead of regarding Ash Wednesday as a guilt-inducing reminder of all we have done wrong, we come with gratitude to God who can free us from our mistakes and release from the burden of remorse?
God is in the forgiving business. Ash Wednesday, even in its quiet solemnity, can be a celebration and recognition of that.
Ash Wednesday reflects a simple truth. We all sin. We hurt others and we hurt ourselves. We damage the earth. We waste time. We get caught up in mindless activities while people close by and far away suffer. We do things we shouldn’t and don’t do things that we should.
Here is the Ash Wednesday response to that.
- Don’t wallow in guilt. Wallowing never did anyone any good.
- Instead, give those sins, mistakes, and regrets to God.
- Together, we can pray the words of the psalmist
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51)
The burdens that weigh us down can crumble like ashes and blow away in the wind. Our past mistakes are absorbed by God’s love so something new can grow.
So this year, maybe you’ll want to try an Ash Wednesday service. Dare to be vulnerable enough to confront your need for forgiveness. Rejoice that God wants to hear our prayers. God welcomes each one of us just as we are today.
Ash Wednesday offers the relief of forgiveness, the promise of being able to start over, and the possibilities implied by a clean slate.
What a gift.