Having grown up in the Catholic Church, I grew accustomed to getting ashes smudged on my forehead to signify the beginning of Lent (which is to the Passion Week what Advent is to Christmas). In those early years, Lent meant a chance to get out of classes more so we can attend more masses. It also meant that as we walked in our matching plaid skirts to mass, we all talked about what we were going to “give up” for Lent. There were always the humorous “I’m going to give up homework” and “I’m giving up chores;” however, the more sincere vowed to give up sugar, soda, or television shows.
Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor perfectly captures how I feel about my Lenten experiences in a letter of reflection to a friend.
“What one has a born catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience things that I have all along accepted.”
For me, Lent was given and accepted long before it was understood or truly experienced. While I am no longer attending the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the liturgical foundation it laid in my life.
Historically, Lent is celebrated during the 40 days before Easter, mirroring Jesus’s 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4). Celebration is a strong word, as the purpose of the feast is to prepare our hearts for the coming Passion Week of Christ. Lent is about remembering God’s holiness and our sinfulness; it is about seeing our weakness and needing God’s strength. It is about making space to see to our need for God – the very need for which Christ set his face to Jerusalem.
Lent is typically kicked off by Ash Wednesday. As I have been reflecting on why Ash Wednesday, the Lord has had me thinking about the purpose of ashes in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, sack clothes, shaved heads, and/ or donning ashes were to be outward signs of an inward repentance or grief (Genesis 37:34; Job 16:15; Lamentations 2:10; Nehemiah 9:1).
While our church won’t be smudging actual ashes on foreheads tomorrow evening, we will be sharing about our need to see our sin and to repent.
Throughout the Scriptures, those who see or encounter God automatically both see and despise their sin.
In Isaiah 6, we see the prophet encounter the living God and reflexively say, “Woe ie me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
In a similar moment in the New Testament, when Peter begins to realize who Christ may be, he responds in a similarly reflexive way.
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
After God gave Job the “Come to Jesus” conversation of a lifetime filled with powerful rhetorical questions, Job responds much like Isaiah and Peter.
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:2, 5-6).
In some ways Lent is an attempt to reverse engineer this reflexive response to seeing Jesus. We create time and space to see and identify our sin, donning proverbial ashes and sack cloth. We do so, not to be ascetic, but to help us see our need for the Savior whose death and resurrection we are preparing to celebrate.
What Isaiah, Job, and Peter did not know in the instances above is that we are ashen, yet we are adored.
Because Christ climbed the hill of Calvary, we are lifted up from our hill of ashes. Because Christ was stripped of his clothes, we are clothed in his robes of perfect righteousness.
In Lent, we make space for the ashes and the sack cloth so we can more fully recognize and rejoice in the salvation that Jesus secured for us through his life, death, and resurrection.
Isaiah prophesied of this reality when he proclaimed, “For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3).
Friends, whether or not you don ashes on your forehead, may you be freshly reminded that you are ashen, yet adored.
My brother scared me as a kid that the priest was putting burnt dead peoples ashes on my head. I don’t go Catholic Church any more either as I can’t reconcile the moral poor behaviour from the Vatican and the immoral behaviour of far too many of the priest etc and the lack of care to those effected in a positive & timely manner.