Lent begins this week, with Ash Wednesday. Lent is a season highlighting Jesus’ wilderness journey, where he was tempted and triumphed over the Devil. Unlike Jesus, we don’t triumph over sin. We give into temptation and go on to pretend we have our acts together. We literally put on masks, trying to persuade others and ourselves that everything is quite aright. Perhaps the most well known example of someone literally doing just this is Queen Elizabeth of England. Elizabeth contracted pox, which left her face scarred. So she created a white lead-based makeup to hide her flaws and disfigurement. We know the shame of our scars and can see ourselves in Queen Elizabeth.
Ash Wednesday is both an invitation and declaration to admit that we are not okay. To admit that we are not okay is truly our greatest fear. But the reality is that God loves and knows us. Jesus died for us. And the Spirit indwells within us, enabling us to live differently. Secure in God’s love because of Jesus it is okay for us to admit we are not okay. We’re are able to say that, without shame, because of Jesus.
God calls his people to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13).
There’s nothing special about having ashes put on our foreheads. It’s ash from palm leaves. It’s part of the ordinary stuff of life. Christians throughout history have gathered together on Ash Wednesday to declare that apart from Christ we are spiritually empty and mere mortals. These ashes remind us that we will die. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:10). Our life, this side of heaven, is cursed by sin. We’re responsible for that. Hence the reason why Abraham said “I am but dust and ashes” (Gn. 18:27). We’re responsible for sin; we’re complicit in vandalizing God’s beautiful world. Ashes symbolize this.
Instead of putting makeup or skin cleanser, we are intentionally getting our faces dirty. It is a honest picture of life, albeit incomplete due to Jesus’ resurrection.
The Apostle Peter tells us that we are united to God, ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pe 1:4). The reality is that Jesus died so that we would never die. “Death, where is your sting?” asked the Apostle Paul. John Donne put it this way, ‘Death be not proud.’ Death is our greatest enemy, beaten for us by Christ. While we all die, we will also be resurrected and partaking of true life with God. That’s the glorious reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
So we will be celebrating Ash Wednesday differently. All these threads will be present. Our liturgy will highlight temptations and trials, but we’ll always remember Jesus’ ultimate triumph over our greatest enemy. When you enter the sanctuary, ashes will be imposed on your forehead in the sign of the cross, and they’ll remain throughout the service until the Lord’s Supper. After you partake of the Supper, the ashes will be wiped off your forehead with a damp wash cloth to remind you that you are a new creation in Christ.