Do you think the Lord
wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
and sit in ashes?
Is this really what he wants
on a day of worship?
--Isaiah 58:5 NRSV
This coming Wednesday, February 17, we will join together in person and online for an Ash Wednesday service. If you are like me and grew up in a church that didn’t practice Ash Wednesday, its meaning might be a bit lost on you. It is a service to mark the beginning of the season of Lent, 40 days (not counting Sundays) prior to Easter. It is a service of repentance and a reminder of one’s own morality, hence the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I grew up Southern Baptist, so every Sunday was about repentance, guilt, shame, etc., so one could say we had Ash Wednesday all year long. When I first began to be a part of churches that observed Ash Wednesday, I thought, “O, how nice. We only have to do this once a year!”
Although Ash Wednesday is about repentance, it’s not really about shame. Repentance is actually a gift of God’s grace not a punishment. It is a means of casting off the burdens of living with our harmful actions and behaviors in order to start again. It is a freeing time rather than a time of drawn faces and downcast spirits.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday come from ancient practices of penance and mourning. Yet, as the prophets make clear, God cares about the condition of our hearts not whether we have outward signs that have no connection to an inner reality. The rituals of Ash Wednesday are not meant to be empty ones. The “imposition” of ashes is a reminder of what we would often rather not be reminded of—we are mortal. Despite all of our efforts to deny our eventual deaths, none of us gets out of this life alive. Rather than a morbid thought, this too is meant to be freeing. We don’t have to go on denying death, instead we can “befriend” our deaths and make the most of this life while we are in it. Instead of living as if we are guaranteed a tomorrow, and another and another, we can live fully in the present, finding joy in each moment, feeling gratitude for the sacredness found all around us. Remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return is certainly humbling, but with humility comes joy as we entrust to God our eternal care and feel the blessed relief that it is not up to us to control what we have no power over.
It is a fair question to ask why we need a reminder of mortality during a viral pandemic that kills thousands of people in the U.S. each day? Isn’t death all around us? In a way that is true. The daily statistics on Covid and vaccination rates, however, do not remind us of the truth that we are in God’s eternal care. The rituals of Ash Wednesday do just that—they offer reassurance that however long or short our lives may be, we are in God’s hands.
Covid will change how we observe Ash Wednesday, however. Instead of receiving ashes on our hands or foreheads, we will do a different tradition. Those present will be asked to write down on a slip of paper something they wish to repent of, let go of or change in their lives. We will safely burn these slips of paper to symbolize the way God cleanses us and purifies us for new life. Those who stream the service online can burn their own slips of paper at home (safety first!). If you cannot attend in person but would like to have something written down and burned, you can communicate with me. I’ll keep your words to be burned in confidence and will see they are burned with the pieces of paper of others present.
Ash Wednesday provides a way for us to remember what we should always keep in mind—but so rarely do—we only get one life. Let’s make the most of it by setting aside the things that keep us from experiencing God’s joy, so that our lives can be as good as God intends them to be.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851