RISING FROM ASH WEDNESDAY: THE BAD NEWS THAT PREPARES US FOR THE GOOD NEWS
By LESLIE STRADER
Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor was once asked to describe the greatest paradigm shift she encountered during her rise to the Supreme Court. She responded by saying, “The existence of evil. I didn’t want to believe anybody could be purely evil, but I know now they can. Evil exists.”
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality, but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”
Hymn writer Frederick Whitfield wrote: “I need Thee, precious Jesus, For I am full of sin; My soul is dark and guilty, my heart is dead within. I need the cleansing fountain Where I can always flee, The blood of Christ most precious, The sinner’s perfect plea.”
All these individuals are saying in different ways at different times in history what Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, recorded in Ephesians 2:1-3 : “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Why is there so much resistance to the truth of man’s total depravity? That no one is righteous (Romans 3:10), that the heart is deceitful and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9), that each one of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6), that we are estranged from God from the womb (Psalm 51:5) and that every intention of the thoughts of our hearts are evil continually (Genesis 6:5)? We aren’t mindless beasts, after all! We can be good when we want to be, right? At least if I am just a little bit better than the worst person I know, I’m doing all right. Right?
Actually, the better question is: “O God, what is man, that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. While there are multiple references to ashes connected to repentance in God’s Word – including Job 42:6, Esther 4:1 and Daniel 9:3 – and there are records of Lenten practices in church history as early as 150 A.D., the ordinance of Ash Wednesday is not mentioned at all in Scripture.
As a result, many Christians haven’t ever given Ash Wednesday much thought. But as with Advent, Ash Wednesday and Lent can be very valuable tools the Holy Spirit can use as we move, heart and mind, toward Easter.
I began observing Ash Wednesday nearly 15 years ago with dear friends, and it has become a treasured act of worship for me. Growing up Baptist, I had no idea of the what or why behind Ash Wednesday; it was just the day my Episcopal friend would show up to school embarrassed by the black mark on her forehead. I was too young and equally self-conscious to make a connection between her visible mark and the inward stain of sin that it pointed to.
The imposition of ashes didn’t start out as a collective experience. Church history records that early Catholics required to do public penance were sprinkled with ashes by the priest after their confession and re-entered their community much like Hester Prynne. But, as Nathanial Hawthorne pointed out in his classic novel, The Scarlett Letter, “if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom…”.
Stuart Malloy from the Christian Resource Institute expresses this truth well: “We who will bear the ashes upon our foreheads stand with those whose sins may be more public, but not, according to the Scriptures, more grievous to the heart of God. Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together. We so often fall short of the faith we claim. But by God’s grace in Christ, we do not have to stay the way we are.”
Ash Wednesday is a time set aside to publicly remind us of our brokenness – that, as Genesis 3:19 says, “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” The imposition of ashes on the forehead is a symbolic, public way of saying we mourn our sin, like Job and many others after him: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
This day leads us into the 40 days of Lent, which historically mirrors Jesus’ wilderness fast. Ideally, this weighty day inaugurates a season set aside to prepare our hearts to feast on the joy and glory of Jesus Christ on Resurrection Sunday. Since embracing Ash Wednesday and the days that follow, Easter has become for me not just one special Sunday, but several weeks of reflection, meditation and focus on the cross, Christ’s sacrifice, and my desperate need to be saved from my sins.
As it has been said, “The bad news prepares us for the Good News.”
Whether or not you, as a Christian, should attend an Ash Wednesday service or participate in Lent is a matter to prayerfully consider. It is important to have a biblical perspective on these events, and guard against any pride that might result from a focus on giving, fasting, or even practicing moderation during the season.
After all, repenting of sin and identifying with a community of believers, saved by grace, is something we are called to every day, not just one day or season of the year. We hope the way we live each day would be the only “mark” needed to distinguish us as followers of Christ.
As believers in Jesus, we are compelled to honestly acknowledge our sin and, because of the kindness of the Lord and our godly sorrow over it, confess and repent at the moment of conviction. And at the same time, we must remember that the sacrifice of Jesus has provided us infinite grace – mercy and forgiveness for each and every one of our sins. He creates in us clean hearts so that we can stand before our Heavenly Father rightly related, completely accepted, and unconditionally loved. (Ps. 51:17)
Don’t waste this season of the year. As we make our way to the cross and the empty tomb together, ask the Holy Spirit to help you make room in your life for what the Lord wants to teach you about Himself.
May our hearts be softened to the voice of the Holy Spirit. May we thoughtfully and with intent reflect each day on our need for God and the wondrous sacrifice of His Son Jesus. And may we embrace the habit of confessing our sin in humility, and worship Him for the infinite grace, mercy and steadfast love He shows us every moment of every day.
Former Abilenian Leslie Strader is a freelance writer in Tyler