I grew up Protestant. Worse, a Baptist. Ash Wednesday was a mystery to me or at least, something that my Catholic buddies had to do. I was not the kind who made fun of the smudge mark; I figured if it meant something to my friends, great. Who am I to criticize especially something about which I knew so little?
Times have changed. No, I’m still Protestant and a Baptist. Meanings have changed. While I never went through Catholic Catechism classes or “CCD” classes as my friends call them, I now look at Ash Wednesday through my own theological lens. This is my new found appreciation for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season.
1 – Ashes remind us of the incredible creativity of God. We are dust. In Genesis, God fashioned humanity out of the dust of the earth. God is eternal. Human beings are not. I find it absolutely incredible that as part of the created order, human beings are allowed a glimpse of the transcendent nature of God. Dust contemplates the eternal. How blessed am I to be able to think beyond the bounds of my created self? Ash Wednesday reminds me of my limitations and the limitless God whom I worship.
2 – Humility is at the heart of discipleship. If the theme of life is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, then how sublime can be my reality. How much can I control, oversee, change, transform? Why do I think somehow I can? Disciples rely upon their God. Only what God enables, only where there is connection, is there opportunity for change. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I must stay connected to Christ.
3 – Ash Wednesday reminds me that my God is flesh and blood. While we all know that God is Spirit and those who worship God do so in spirit and in truth, the central doctrines of the faith indicate that Jesus is God made flesh. What God condescends into the human condition? Jesus Christ. Condescension, not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, is a virtue exhibited by God. Ash Wednesday reminds me not to take myself too seriously.
4 – Ash Wednesday points directly to a cross. You can’t escape the reality of the cross. It is the cross where death is put to death. The cruelty of humanity with all its ugliness, self-righteousness, and dominance issues are dealt with on the cross. The familiar ways of self and all its demand for gratification is put to death. Those inner voices of feed me, you deserve it, you must have it are confronted by the cross. No more. You were bought with a price. You are not free to play God. The cross put to death all of that so that something else might rise within my soul. Ash Wednesday reminds me to put to death “all the vain things that charm me most and sacrifice them to His blood.”
5 – Ash Wednesday reminds me that life is precious. While I may be ashes, I am a fearful and wonderful heap of ashes. God’s grand design is being played out in this ash heap. Resurrection is the triumph over the ashes and the transformation of dust into magnificent glory. Ash Wednesday reminds me that my life is hid in Christ and that there is an eternal role that I willingly and thankfully play out in dependence upon God so that what is dust is swallowed up in life.
Ash Wednesday is a time for contemplation. It is good to remember the words of the psalmist, “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is….What do I look for? My hope is in you” (Psalm 39: 4 & 7).
May your faith deepen and your hope in Christ increase this Lenten season. During Lent, I have asked several Executive Ministers to share their perspective on this Lenten season. Each contribution is meant to help us think again about the reality of the cross and its unique stamp on our life as Christ’s disciples.
Rev. Dr. Alfred J. Fletcher
Acting Associate General Secretary for Mission Resource Development and Regional Executive Minister of Maine