ALMIGHTY and Everlasting God, Who hatest nothing that Thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
-- Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church
“Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him— A grain offering and a drink offering For the LORD your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the people, Sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and nursing babes; Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, And the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests, who minister to the LORD, Weep between the porch and the altar; Let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ ” Then the LORD will be zealous for His land, And pity His people. The LORD will answer and say to His people, “Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil, And you will be satisfied by them; I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations."
--Joel 2.12-19 (NKJV)
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
--Matthew 6.12-21 (NKJV)
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, one of the oldest seasons of the church year. During its forty days, Christians focus on their own sinfulness and need of a Savior, preparing for the highest celebration of the church year, Easter. In this time, we discipline ourselves through the traditional spiritual disciplines of repentance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in fervent expectation that God will renew our zeal in faith, life, and love toward others.
The words we hear today as the ashes are applied to our forehead take us straight to the graveside at a funeral--by design--reminding us or our mortality and the future that awaits us all lest Christ return before we die. But these ashes are not the final word. The final word on sin, death, and the grave comes in forty days on Easter Sunday. Looking forward to that, though, God's call today is to acknowledge our sinfulness, accept his mercy, and believe in his Son.
In light of that call comes a changed and transformed life...the way of the cross. This way lives a life of selflessness in the face of a self-centered world. This way is filled with good works and loving our neighbor as God loves us, not to get something in return. This way is marked by the simplicity of a quiet faith lived out in a noisy, busy, chaotic world.
We fail as living this cross-formed life, but God in his mercy gives us a 'do over' every year in this season of Lent. During this time we strive (again and again and again) to become intentional and deliberate about the way of the cross...going so far on this day as to literally mark ourselves with a reminder of our mortality that is simultaneously a mark of Christ's victory and our ultimate immortality in him.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself."
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash