Ash Wednesday

“We want to avoid suffering, death, sin, ashes. But we live in a world crushed and broken and torn, a world God Himself visited to redeem. We receive his poured-out life, and being allowed the high privilege of suffering with Him, may then pour ourselves out for others.”

Elisabeth Elliot

Over the next few weeks I plan to post some devotional thoughts about Lent. I did not grow up in a liturgical church, and following the church year is a relatively new experience for me. For the last 4 years I’ve been worshipping with an Anglican church during the month of February, when my husband and I celebrate our soul retreat. I’ll never forget our first service in the Anglican church. The rector welcomed everyone saying, “Everything we are going to do today we do because we love Jesus!” I knew then I wanted to know more about the church and to worship there.

The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, the 46th day before Easter. Easter of course is determined by the lunar calendar, the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. Easter can occur as early as March 21 and as late as April 25. This year Easter is April 4.

I asked my friend, Ashely Tumlin Wallace, to explain why ashes on Ash Wednesday. This is her explanation:

We start Lent with a very special service – Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, the Body of Christ gather to enter this time of devotion corporately. During the service, we look at our own mortality and the consequences of our sin. Traditionally, in the Bible, times of penitence were marked by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes. At the Ash Wednesday service, the forehead of each believer is marked with ashes in the sign of the cross and we are reminded through these ashes that we are “but dust and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19). These are the very words God spoke to Adam and Eve after they committed the first sin.

Ashley Tumlin Wallace

What is penitence, and how is it different from guilt or remorse?

  • Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
  • Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
  • John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Penitence, or repentance is agreeing with God about our sin since at the core, all of our sin is against Him. David confessed, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David had sinned against Bathsheba and against her husband, Uriah but the heart of his sin was against God. When we realize this, we change our minds, do a 180, turn from sin, turn to God in agreement with Him.

In scripture, sackcloth and ashes were used as an outward expression of an inward condition. Mordecai, Jonah, King Hezekiah, and Daniel are examples of men who expressed Godly sorrow and repentance in sackcloth and/or ashes.

David celebrates the joy of repentance with these words –

You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

Psalm 30:11-12

Of course, today we don’t change our clothes, and the ashes smudged on our foreheads are symbolic. Joel writes –

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

Joel 2:13

God wants our hearts! David writes in Psalm 86, “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.”

Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.

Thomas Merton

We are blessed to know the mercy of God! God did say to Adam as he banished him from the Garden, “for dust you are and to dust you will return”, meaning that he and all others after him would experience death. Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” This is the focus of Lent – we are made alive in Christ because HE lived the life we could not live, died the death we should have died, and then conquered death on our behalf!

God is a Spirit, just and wise
He sees our inmost mind;
In vain to heaven we raise our cries,
And leave our souls behind.

Their lifted eyes salute the skies,
Their bended knees the ground;
But God abhors the sacrifice
Where not the heart is found.

Lord, search my thoughts, and try my ways,
And make my soul sincere;
Then shall I stand before thy face,
And find acceptance there.

Isaac Watts
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