By Fr David McGladdery, February 10 2016
On Ash Wednesday, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” The practice of using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Hebrew people. Christian use of the ashes goes back to the 2nd century, and it was widely practiced by the 5th century.
Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It sets the believer on a sobering time of self-examination and repentance, to wait upon and prepare for the renewal given by God’s Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As we each come forward to have the sign of the cross marked on his our foreheads, we are reminded that we, like the palms that have been burned to make the ashes, will someday turn to dust. As your forehead is marked with ashes, you will hear these words from Genesis 3:19—”Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we all die. The ashes speak of the virtue of humility, of knowing our human limits and knowing we need God. Humility comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.
Ashes remind us of our mortality, but why ashes in the sign of a cross? The cross in ashes reminds us of human sin and the resulting injustice that is part of life. The cross reminds us that our innocent friend Jesus was abused and tortured and executed. But we know, that ashes in the shape of a cross remind us that the cross is not the last word—that resurrection lies beyond it.
Why be reminded of our human mortality and sin? To encourage us to fast from those attitudes and actions that drive a wedge between us and God and embrace those which bring us closer to God. The Pharisees had good intentions—to maintain the holiness of the people in the midst of foreign occupation. But Jesus, in Matthew 6:1-6, criticizes their showy public piety. Throughout the gospel, Jesus challenges their definition of a holy table as one that excludes “unclean” people.
Purity laws regarding how and with whom one ate were part of the strategy of being a holy, set apart people. The Pharisees believed that avoiding social contact, especially the intimate act of eating with outcasts (prostitutes, certain foreigners, tax collectors, lepers) and engaging in ritual fasting, was pleasing to God. That is not the kind of fasting Jesus intended for his followers.
His ministry was characterised by the prophet Isaiah’s depiction of what is pleasing to God:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Jesus condemns outward practices of worship that mask arrogant, unaccepting hearts. His disciples aren’t occupied with avoiding powerless people to gain acceptance by powerful people. Nor are they to be giving up things to impress others with their piety, but with filling their days with his presence.
Lent is often caricatured as a long-faced, no-fun season. But Lent is really about saying no to some things so we can say yes to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs; to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. But Jesus said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching, feeding, and exorcising.
During Lent we Christians are called to say no to anything that comes between God and ourselves. It might be the tendency to consistently see the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life’s challenges without factoring the presence of God into the equation. We may be being called this Lent to say no to being critical of our own selves and to say yes to loving our selves a little bit more: “Love your neighbour as yourself!” Jesus tells us.
We are a fallen people –
When we answer Christ’s call to say no to destructive practices, energy is left to say yes to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our fasting with some positive disciplines to help us respond to God’s love more intentionally. John Wesley called them the means of grace: prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness aimed at justice, and regular attendance at corporate worship where we participate in the sacraments of our Baptismal Grace, especially Holy Communion and meet God as the scriptures are read and proclaimed.
Just as there are lots of things we may need to say no to during Lent, so there are many opportunities to say yes. I will see the good in all who I meet; with those whom I live and work. I will improve my understanding of issues of justice for the poor. I will participate in a ministry of care in my community. I will pray more faithfully and actively.
In adopting these positive disciplines, even though they may be taxing for us, we find new life. As the prophet Isaiah says “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Is 58:8).
We are fallen people – that great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey once said, Christians are not people who are always right and perfect; they are people whose faces are always dirty with mud from constantly falling; but their faces are constantly washed clean with tears of joy, knowing the saving power of God’s love.
I once went into a church – a modern building, and behind the altar was a large, rough wooden cross, and on that cross in large metal letters was the word “Yes!”
The cross in ashes on our skin is our “yes” to the kind of Lent Jesus desires for each of us. He wants us to accompany him boldly, saying “no” to that which would slow our steps and saying “yes” to that which would fill our hearts and our actions with love for him and others. The kind of Lent Jesus desires for us is the kind that prepares our hearts for a Saviour who rises from the ashes of death and injustice to bring a new life of Justice, Joy and Hope. That new life begins with Ash Wednesday.