I am reposting my traditional Ash Wednesday post today as we begin Lent together. May the Peace of Christ be with all of us. If you near San Clemente and want to join us, the Service tonight starts at 7 PM.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
With these words, a small bit of ash is rubbed in the sign of the cross on the forehead of each person. A mark of humility, a sign of mortality, an acknowledgement of repentance.
While for many protestants the idea of imposing ashes or even attending an “Ash Wednesday” service is too, well, Catholic, for them, the truth is that what we acknowledge on this first day of Lent is nothing more or nothing less than being human.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a forty day period of “fasting” and spiritual attention that is intended to commemorate Jesus’ own forty day wilderness period of preparation at the beginning of his earthly ministry. During Lent, Christians prepare for the sublime feast of Easter by spending a protracted time in the fast of Lent.
At San Clemente Presbyterian Church, we will begin Lent with a dinner together in our fellowship hall. Then after dinner, an Ash Wednesday Service where two invitations will occur: 1) Everyone, young and old, whatever age and stage of life will be invited to come and receive the imposition of ashes, and 2) Every Christian, young and old, whatever age and stage of life, will be invited to come forth a second time and receive the Lord’s Supper.
By coupling these two moments—one a tradition, the other a sacrament—we wish to convey a clear message: the starting point for all spiritual progress, all spiritual attention, all spiritual discipline, is in the acknowledgement of our own genuine humanity and receiving God’s generous mercy. Like two blades of a pair of scissors both are needed: humility and grace, the truth of our mortality and the gift of eternal life, remembering that our bodies were fashioned of the dust and that the God of the universe took on the same creaturely form in order to bring us to life eternal. And in receiving both the ash and the sacraments, we complete our first act of repentance.
The focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent is repentance. Again, many of us are confused about repentance. Some of us think of it as “penance,” that is, atoning for our sins with acts of contrition. But that is not repentance. We can’t atone for what we have done and need not try. Jesus’ work on the cross is our atonement. Some of us think of repentance as sorrow and shame for what we have done, but that is also inaccurate. Indeed, as I will explain in another post, the bible has a different Greek word for sorrow.
Repentance is literally to “change your mind.” In the famous words of Dallas Willard, “To reconsider your strategy for living based on the news of God’s Kingdom that is available in Jesus.” And that is what Lent is for, to reconsider your strategy for living. To begin a new process of deep consideration and reflection about your life. To reconsider what it means to follow Jesus, to plumb the mystery of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. To reconsider what your strategy for living should be, based on this good news.
And it all begins with this: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. You are not an angel. You are not a mere soul or disembodied spirit. You are human, you are mortal, you are deeply dependent on the God who formed your body from the humus of the earth and breathed life into you with his kiss. God has come to you, in Jesus, O Creature, and called you to have life eternal with him.
And so, with ash on our foreheads and the taste of bread and grape on our tongues, we begin a holy lent.