Many moons ago, when I worked at a coffee shop near my college campus, I had a coworker who held extraordinarily strong opinions about Mexican food. It started as a joke, something he could argue about without actually causing controversy, but his opinions grew more refined with each incident. Soon, what had once been a technique for diffusing a situation became a situation itself. My friend became a Mexican food aficionado, and I stopped talking about it. I’d bring up Italian delicacies, unusual Asian cuisine, or some bizarre German recipes, but never Mexican. Mexican food was avoided at all costs. I avoided it.
Unfortunately, I’ve held a similar mentality to my friend for a few years regarding Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I’ve held both in high regard for much of my life, and as I see them misrepresented continuously, I can scarcely help but defend them, but what was once a love for liturgy had become anger. Something beautiful had become ugly. As I realized that, I felt terrible! I’d misrepresented something I cared for deeply, and had turned others and myself away from its true message.
This is the message of Ash Wednesday.
Ashes have historically been a sign of recognition of sin and subsequent repentance, that we see how we’ve misrepresented God and approach Him, humbly asking for undeserved forgiveness. We were made from dust, formed with care from something so simple and low, and it is to dust that we will someday return. We are simple humans, continuously rebelling against a perfect creator, ascribing an entirely unmerited pride to ourselves, yet we all return to the dust in the end.
But with God, we are not mere dust. As God breathed into our bodies, no greater than forms of wet clay, He gave us life. He lifted us from our earthy origins, and He can lift us from our earthy ending as well. When we approach God, bound in sackcloth and ash like mourners who mourn our own faults, we carry with us hearts pleading for that same breath to give us new life. Life which lifts us up from the dust and gives us motion. Life which prepares us for joyful obedience and reverence. Life which is in God alone.
This is what Ash Wednesday is about, and this is what Lent is about.