I grew up with no church background, so my first encounter with Ash Wednesday was in college. I saw students walking around with some black mark on their forehead and to be totally honest, it freaked me out. Being college, I just assumed it was a ritual of some fraternity or sorority. But as the number of people with the mysterious mark grew, I began to get paranoid. Is this a secret society that I don't know about? Are they planning something? Eventually a friend explained to me that it was something that was a Catholic tradition.
But Ash Wednesday is not just for Catholic folks. In fact, some of our biases toward the Catholic Church embedded in our religious traditions are holding us back from experiencing a spiritually significant opportunity. As we enter the Lenten season and look forward to Easter, now is the perfect time to observe Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is a solemn occasion focused on grief, mortality, repentance and mourning. It is a reflection on death, in the physical and spiritual sense, and the loss it creates in our lives. It kicks off Lent, where many folks of all Christian denominations commit to pray and fast in a significant way until Easter. Never has there been a more appropriate time for a united moment for followers of Jesus of all denominations to pause and grieve. With more than 900,000 COVID deaths in our country alone, unsettling news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, divisive politics, harmful legislation, on top of whatever personal difficulties you may be wrestling with, a national day of mourning and repentance seems overdue. We NEED a way to mark the unfathomable loss we've collectively experienced over the last 2 years and begin to process our pain together.
We need Ash Wednesday because Jesus wept. The shortest verse in the Christian Scripture (John 11:35) offers a critical perspective. Christians are obsessed with skipping to the hope. In our response to real human suffering, we tend to offer platitudes that point to a future hope instead of acknowledging the pain of the moment. The Bible calls that weeping with those who weep. In the words of my buddy Rob Fike: "It’s so hard to fight the urge to make pain and suffering not only make sense, but create value for those its inflicted on 😔".
We've tried to build a culture and engineer a theology that allows us to fast forward through the messy middle and go straight to the happy ending. But life doesn't work like that. Just because Jesus is triumphant over death in the end doesn't mean we get to skip the suffering now. And Jesus' tears over His friend Lazarus are a powerful reminder that experiencing grief is a necessary part of loss. If Jesus mourned, we should too.
Jesus wept even though He would raise Lazarus from the dead a short time later. Jesus wept even though Lazarus would experience eternal life with a loving God in Heaven, by nature of Jesus' eventual death on the cross and resurrection. Jesus knew it would all be OK in the end, yet He still wept. Because acknowledging loss and allowing ourselves to grieve is part of a healthy spiritual life. Death is inextricably linked to the human existence. And even though death is a curse, mortality is what makes life matter. We are limited creatures, destined to perish, without the intervention of a Savior. So on our journey to celebrate Easter, the most incredible day in human history, let us use this time to reflect on why that matters.
Ash Wednesday is our chance to grieve our incalculable losses. Whether it has personally touched us or not, this pandemic has taken so much from us all. Even if you haven't lost a friend, family member or loved one to COVID, you've lost SOMETHING. A graduation, a family vacation, an opportunity, a relationship, a job, school joy, freedom, faith, security, a sense of normalcy. That loss matters. We cannot avoid feeling the pain of it, no matter how hard we try. And the longer we delay processing, the harder those losses will hit. Pastor Rick Warren described it as a "tsunami of grief" waiting to crash down upon us. This grief interrupted isn't just harmful to us, it's a barrier to connection with God.
Ash Wednesday is also our chance to repent. Repentance is a word with a lot of baggage because it's been co-opted and corrupted by the hellfire and brimstone crowd. In the simplest form, repent means "to think differently afterwards". It's about a change of mind that brings about a change of direction. Instead of groveling at the throne of an angry God to avoid harsh judgment, picture turning around to head back home to a loving parent. We've all sinned. And our sin sends us away from a loving God; not just from potential blessings, but from the most valuable thing of all: His presence.
By observing Ash Wednesday, we can collectively begin to mourn our losses drawing us closer to a God who is near to the brokenhearted. We can also get our life back on track by making the conscious effort to turn from the things that lead us further into darkness and begin to think differently. So, join me this Ash Wednesday in a day of mourning and repentance. And if getting ashes on your forehead freaks you out, just don't get them.