Of all the days of in the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday may be the most disconcerting. It marks the beginning of the Lenten season, but it is often preceded, at least in the U.S.A., with great debauchery (i.e. Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras). Ash Wednesday is all about repentance, but so many miss that point as they hurry to get in as much drunken revelry as possible before they show up at church on Ash Wednesday to “repent.” We come in from a party and leave as if we were going to a funeral.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the forty days of repentance before Resurrection Sunday is marked with the grim symbol of ashes used in the liturgy of Roman, Eastern, and many mainline Protestant denominations. Ashes as a sign of repentance is not new though, it is at least as old as ancient Jews who would tear their garments and put throw ashes on themselves as a sign of horrific grief.
It is tempting on this day to follow the tried and true American practice of toning down the depressing parts, and emphasizing only the positive parts of the redemption of man. If it were up to many pastors and churches, many American congregations would be treated to a triumph and Resurrection (Easter) without even recognizing the fact that Jesus was despised, rejected, abandoned, condemned and put to death like a common criminal on what we call “Good Friday.”
I love Palm Sunday and Resurrection Sunday as much as anyone. I love to celebrate too. But, at the beginning of this Lenten season, it is important to remember—to start out remembering—that the crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and God himself is the pivot point of the history of the universe. Years ago, it was reported that inhumane prisons were found in Guinea, kept secret from the world by a leader much like the recent fallen leader of Ukraine and other despots through the centuries. In one of the dungeon cells, a prisoner used his own blood to write a prayer: “God save me.”
As the world we live in and the country many of us love seems to spiral toward greater depravity and hopelessness, one is tempted to ask “what hope is there for humanity?” What do we do as believers and what do churches do when things seem to just get worse and worse? We can do what Ash Wednesday is all about. We can quit pretending everything is okay and repent. We can take comfort in the fact that as the writer of Hebrews said that we do not have a Savior that is untouched by the feelings of our infirmities. We can quit the faux celebrations like Fat Tuesday. And we can begin to find hope in the fact that redemption is “drawing nigh” because of what Jesus did 2,000 years ago. That is not false hope. That is not hollow or fake celebration. That is real hope. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.