Ash Wednesday: Crossing the Threshold into Lent
Guidance on using the lectionary.
Lectionary readings for February 10, 2016: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“‘And yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart…’” –Joel 2:12
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Church’s observance of the Lenten season—six weeks that are set apart for the purpose of drawing closer to God and seeking him with greater intensity. Unfortunately, the Lenten season often gets reduced to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This is a fine question, but it can only take us so far. The real question of the Lenten season is, “How will I repent and return to God with all my heart?”
This begs an even deeper question: “Where in my life have I gotten away from God, and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?”
Honest to God
Ash Wednesday initiates this season in which we are called to be as honest as we are able about the ways we have “left” God and slipped into spiritual mediocrity. “You desire truth in the inward being,” Psalm 51 points out, “Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
As God gives us wisdom and insight about our true condition, we can choose spiritual practices that are uniquely suited to help us return to God in the places where we have strayed or to renew our passion where our hearts have grown cold.
The Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday (which are the same for Cycles A, B, and C) provide a good introduction to some of the concrete disciplines that have the potential to loosen the grip of sin and distraction in our lives—prayer and fasting, hiddenness, self-examination and repentance, forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and storing up treasure in heaven by giving generously to others.
Search Me, O God
Left to ourselves, we probably would not choose to devote a whole season to such rigorous and demanding disciplines, but God knows we need it. As we receive the symbolic gesture of the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we acknowledge our human finiteness and mortality.
No matter who we think we are, receiving the ashes reminds us that, “You are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). This is not meant to be morbid; it is just meant to limit our grandiosity and help us to stay in touch with the real human condition we all share.
The ashes marking our foreheads carry the same meaning contained in the Old Testament practice of covering oneself with ashes. They are a graphic reminder of our sinfulness, an outward sign of inward repentance and mourning as we become aware of our sin. This, too, is good for us because we live in so much denial. With as much openness as we can muster, we invite God to search us and know us and (eventually) lead us into resurrection life.
Longing for God
The purpose for engaging in Lenten disciplines is that we would become more finely attuned to our longing for God so we can seek him with all our hearts. Disciplines of fasting and other kinds of abstinence help us face the hold that our sin patterns have on us so we can somehow let go of our attachment to anything that is not God.
As we wrestle with our awareness of the grip our attachments have on us, we enter into the godly grief that leads to repentance, so we can receive forgiveness and walk in new levels of freedom.
God’s Steadfast Love
Serious as the Lenten season is, it is also a time of great hope as we experience God’s steadfast love for us, even in the midst of whatever sin we are acknowledging. In the shadow of Christ’s cross and impending resurrection we are assured that there is forgiveness and cleansing for all who turn to him. In Christ there is the power to pass from death unto life in the places where we ourselves are in need of resurrection.
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,
by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature,
let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
Book of Common Prayer