As a pastor, I have a particular dread every Ash Wednesday that none of the members shared. It arose from the fact that I imposed ashes upon the foreheads not only of the congregation. In years past I placed ashes on the foreheads of my wife and children and said to them, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I really would rather not have said that to my own blood.
Wednesday is the one day of the Christian year that is supposed to fill us with
dread. Dread that God is just, dread that God will judge, dread that we might
be judged in justice rather than in love. If wearing ashes on our foreheads
should do anything for us, it should confront us with the fact that for all of
us, there is an end coming one day. Before the most holy God, all the things we
value will be as ashes.
The American dream is that we can have it all. Therefore, we often seem not to understand that Christian discipleship is a zero-sum game: if we are to grow in discipleship, we must shrink in something else. If we are to add holiness to our lives, we must give up ungodliness. In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church’s main misconception is “that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin.” We think we can change what we believe without changing what we do. We want revival without reformation, we want rebirth without repentance.
To repent means more than to regret. Originally a nautical term, it meant to change course, to go in a new direction. Repentance means to change, to be different. That’s the real reason why people are supposed to “give up something” for Lent. How often do we give up something trivial, like desserts or going to movies? It’s no repentance to give up something that we can easily do without and then, once Lent is over, resume. It’s no repentance to pretend we are turning away from actions instead of sins. Repentance is to pull out our deepest sins by the roots, and that will hurt!
Fasting for Lent means to repent, not merely to do without food for part or all of a day. Fasting means to be focused on repentance so intently that we give up the ungodliness that pervades our lives. It is to be a holy man or holy woman for forty days. We express that turn toward holiness by symbolically wearing ashes to signify our awareness of our mortality, and to turn to ashes the parts of our lives, the parts of our character, that separate us from fullness of grace.
Yet there is a danger in Lent as well as opportunity. Repentance is necessary, but repentance does not save us. We are saved by what God has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Repentance springs from understanding that we have no hope apart from Christ. The danger in Lent is that we will emphasize repentance of our sins to the exclusion of their cure. Our works are part of our faith, but we are justified before God by our works in faith not because of what we do but because of what God has already done. From the ashes of repentance, in grace, God can build anew.
Peter Perry, a pastor in Texas, told of the time his neighbor’s house burned to the ground. “The trees all around were scorched,” he wrote. “The grass was brown."
A few blackened timbers stood near the back of the house, and the remains of the cast iron plumbing system rose out of the ashes. The day after the fire, as I walked to school with a friend, we saw the woman who had lived there, standing in the midst of what had once been her home, weeping and wondering aloud what would become of her and her family. As she gazed at the ruins of her life, she despaired. But her husband was comforting her. “We can rebuild,” he said. And they did. One year later, a beautiful new home graced that lot. And the home they built was built around the old home’s massive, stone fireplace. But I wonder . . . Did the woman and her husband and their children sit around that fireplace on winter nights, look at the dancing flames on the logs they were burning, and remember the ashes?
We do remember the ashes of our past, do we not? Old hurts, ancient wrongs. Writer Hazel Farris told of her childhood’s fiery temper.
One day, after an argument had sent one of my playmates home in tears, my father told me that for each thoughtless, mean thing I did he would drive a nail into our gatepost. Each time I did a kindness or a good deed, one nail would be withdrawn. Months passed. Each time I entered our gate, I was reminded of the reasons for those ever‑increasing nails, until finally, getting them out became a challenge. At last the long‑awaited day arrived – only one more nail! As my father withdrew it I danced around proudly exclaiming, ‘See, Daddy, the nails are all gone.’ Father gazed intently at the post as he thoughtfully replied, ‘Yes, the nails are gone—but the scars remain.’
Scars do remain, and we wear them. We’ve made them, too. Sometimes we count our scars and relive the hurt and anger and pain of each one. Sometimes we love to inflame the passions of righteous indignation. But God does not do that. God forgives our sins and God forgets those sins. God does not carry grudges. In our repentance and humility before God, we can see that God’s ways are not our ways. God forgives, God forgets. Our sins were nailed to a cross on Calvary. In Christ’s triumph over the powers of sin and death, our sins have become like ashes, blown away in the wind.
So, the call to repent must not be ignored. We must respond to God’s initiative. “If there are a thousand steps between us and God,” said Max Lucado, “God will take all but one. God will leave the final one for us. The choice is ours.”
We are dust and to dust we shall return. The urgency of Lent is that we turn to God now, for later may never come. Dr. George Sweeting told of a visit to Niagara Falls.
It was spring, and ice was rushing down the river,” he wrote. “As I viewed the large blocks of ice flowing toward the falls, I could see dead fish embedded in the ice. Gulls by the score were riding the ice down the river, feeding on the fish. As they neared the falls, their wings would go out, and they would escape from the falls.
I watched one gull which seemed to delay and wondered when it would leave. It was engrossed in the carcass of a fish, and when it finally came to the brink of the falls, out went its powerful wings. The bird flapped and flapped and even lifted the ice out of the water, and I thought it would escape. But it had delayed too long so that its claws had frozen into the ice. The weight of the ice was too great, and the gull plunged into the abyss.
The moment to turn back to God is this moment.
When we receive the ashes on our foreheads, there first stroke usually is a vertical one with the ashes on our forehead. Think of it as an “I.” The “I” is the egoistic part of each one of us that is the sinful self, the rebellious self, the self that wants to walk alone instead of with God. But right after the “I” we receive a horizontal line, and the “I” will be crossed out. Crossed out. As Bass Mitchell explained, “The ashes made in the form of a cross remind us of the cross of Christ by which our sins and the sins of the whole world are canceled out!”
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we come from a world of death and sin, but that we do not have to stay there. “We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us repent and believe in the Gospel!”