I didn’t know what Ash Wednesday was until 2014, when I was in my first Lenten season at my United Methodist church. I may not have even gone to the service, except I was looking for community that evening and being introduced to a small group for the first time.
Ash Wednesday is now one of my favorite traditions. There’s something about a pastor marking a cross on your forehead while looking into your eyes and saying “Repent and believe the Gospel” that shakes you in your winter boots.
I didn’t understand what it was when I first received the ashes, and if I were to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever understand the eternal significance of the service. Every time I try, I get blown away.
And since I couldn’t explain it well if I tried, here are my three favorite articles about Ash Wednesday.
Why Ashes? Connecting to who we are and who we can be – The United Methodist Church
When we participate in the service of ashes, we confront our sin. We recognize our inability to live up to all God has created us to be, and our need to be forgiven. No matter how often we go to church, how far we have come in our spiritual journeys, how accomplished we may feel, each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
While this may sound fatalistic, it is not the end of the story. Lent leads to Easter, the day we celebrate that though our bodies are temporary and our lives are flawed, a day of resurrection will come when we will live in the presence of God forever.
One Wednesday every year we go to church remembering who we are, and hopeful of who we can be.
A little reading for Fat Tuesday/Ash Wednesday (from Accidental Saints) – Nadia Bolz-Weber
Here’s my image of Ash Wednesday: If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.
Ash (from Searching for Sunday) – Rachel Held-Evans
Once a year, on a Wednesday, we mix ashes with oil. We light candles and confess to one another and to God that we have sinned by what we have done and what we have left undone. We tell the truth. Then we smear the ashes on our foreheads and together acknowledge the single reality upon which every Catholic and Protestant, believer and atheist, scientist and mystic can agree: “Remember that you are dust and to dust and to dust you will return.” It’s the only thing we know for sure: we will die.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But a long time ago, a promise was made. A prophet called Isaiah said a messenger would come to proclaim good news to the poor and brokenhearted, “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Those who once repented in dust and ashes “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3).
We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.