Today, across the globe, many Christ followers will line up at altars to be marked on the forehead or the hand with ashes. It is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent – this plodding and sometimes painful wandering towards the brokenness of the cross that culminates in the miracle of the resurrection. This journey begins today with ashes.
Tradition dictates that, as the believer stands before the priest or pastor, the sign of the cross is drawn and accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Or, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,”
It is a powerful statement that on this one day of the year, believers in Christ wear an outward and visual symbol of their faith. As we shop, as we work, as we engage in the public areas of life, this cross functions as a filter for how the world understands us. The ashes define us today.
The ashes themselves bring their own profound symbolism to the story. They are all that remains of the burned branches from the Palm Sunday celebration of the year before. But, Palm Sunday is such a troubling chapter in our narrative. How is it that the very people who waved those palm branches in welcome and celebration for Jesus are raising their fists and crying out to crucify him less than a week later? What kind of weakness? What kind of traitorous hearts? What kind of people?
In truth, that Palm Sunday crowd allows us an honest picture of our human reality – perhaps, even, the truest mirror of our hearts. We both want Christ, and we don’t want him. Our human nature is in state of war between accepting God’s mercy and rejecting his authority. It’s easy to love God for what he gives us and it’s equally easy to be angry with God when he doesn’t give us what we want. The palm branches easily give way to the fists of Good Friday.
So, we wear the ashes today on this first day of Lent. We set our feet towards the cross and we plod towards Friday. We mark ourselves with the ash that represents our broken dreams, our broken physical bodies, our broken relationship to God’s creation, our broken relationships with others, and our broken relationship with God himself: the ash that defines our human state. We wear the ash that reminds us of our sin. We wear the Palm Sunday ash and we proclaim that we believe.
What do we believe?
We dare to believe that the triumphal entry of Jesus in AD 30 is a glimpse of truth: Christ is both a powerful king and a merciful Savior. We dare to believe that His triumphal entry into our hearts is a sure sign of his love and his power over darkness, death, and sin. We dare to believe that at death’s door, when our bodies return to dust, in some miraculous way, it is then we who make that triumphal entry – we step into eternal life with Christ. We are free.
On this Wednesday, those ashes define us. They tell the world that we recognize our need for repentant hearts. They remind us of the reality of our fallen nature. And, they speak of hope – the hope of resurrection, the gift of life and the treasure that is Christ.
On this Ash Wednesday – this first day of Lent:
Remember. Read Genesis 3.