Looking Forward: Ash Wednesday

By: Greg Gardner

We once again observe Ash Wednesday with a service in which we make the sign of the cross with ashes on one another’s foreheads. For much of Christian history, the one imposing the ashes would say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those words reinforced very powerfully the traditional focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent, which was the reality that our lives are very finite, and that in order to be prepared for death we should repent of our sins.

Lenten practice for a very long time involved some form of fasting — for some by not eating or drinking anything at least one day a week, for others by giving up a particular food, beverage, or other enjoyable thing for the duration of the forty-day season.

More recently, however, “Lenten discipline” for many people has shifted away from giving up something one usually enjoys and toward doing something one has not done before, or not done as consistently as one could and should, especially things that are of help to others — using the forty days of Lent to form positive habits that continue throughout one’s life.

This approach is strongly supported by verses from Isaiah 58 which we read at the beginning of our Ash Wednesday service, with the prophet speaking for the HOLY ONE:

My people ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” …
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see them naked, to clothe them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

What Lent is most properly about is an effort to become more aware of the attitudes and behaviors that keep us from living the life God gives us in the way God desires of us, the way of life we know best from the example of Jesus, and the effort to form new attitudes and new behaviors that will help us follow more closely the way of Jesus.

There is more to be said about and discovered in the symbolism of ashes, the sign of the cross, and the meaning and purpose of Lent. So let’s give this a shot, journeying, searching and wrestling together.

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