Yesterday was my first time observing Ash Wednesday. What a day it was. I began my day in St. Bart’s church in Midtown. I stumbled across it as I looked for a place to reflect and pray. As I entered the church, which had beautiful Byzantine architecture, I was moved to see a good handful of people hearing the priest recite the meaning of Lent. For me, it was a sacred moment.
This is a far cry from my first encounter with Ash Wednesday. About thirteen years ago (I was not following Jesus at this time), as I went on my lunch break, I was startled to see a mass of people with black stuff on their foreheads. I wasn’t theologically trained or ecclesiastically informed, so I took it that the black stuff on their foreheads had something to do with the Anti-Christ and the mark of the beast. For the next two hours, I experienced existential dread. Oh snap! The anti-Christ has come. Armageddon is about to ensue. I found out later that the black stuff had to do with Ash Wednesday.
Since then, I have been quite indifferent to Ash Wednesday and Lent. I realized that I was influenced by an evangelical tradition that judged all ritual and those who participated in it as superstitious or legalistic. Little did I know that there is a means of blessing and grace that one receives as one comes before God in repentance and receives the ashes. It’s sad to know how I have judged people’s motives during this day, and subscribed to a snobbish and haughty evangelical theology. And so, my journey to a new understanding of Lent has brought tremendous blessing to me. Ironically, on the first day that I observed Ash Wednesday, I administered the ashes at my church during our contemplative service. Here are some of my reflections on this day and season of Lent. It is by no means comprehensive, and I hope I do not go down the road of judging those who do not practice this ritual. These are just some of my unedited ruminations.
The ashes represent my repentance. I come before the Lord and prepare for his death and resurrection. The enormity and majesty of this cataclysmic event is glorious, and because it is, I’m like Isaiah before the Lord. I’m a man of unclean lips living among a perverse generation.
The ashes also represent my humanity and the fragility of life. I am human, and not a god. Therefore I recognize my limits and choose not to live with the guilt of being human. Ash Wednesday is not a day to live in guilt. It’s a day to recognize our brokenness and humanity. It’s a day to freely come before God and declare, “I am human, I am dust, and you still love me.” Guilt tends to arise from a perspective of ourselves as exempt from sin and brokenness. We say, “how could I have done such a thing?” When we utter those words, we have forgotten our humanity. This is not a theology for licentiousness. Rather it is an accurate and realistic theological anthropology.
To live according to my limits means I recognize that one day I will die, and so I ask God to help me live with a vibrancy and appreciation for the gifts that are before me.
By observing Ash Wednesday, I recognize that God is the center of my existence. My entire being revolves around the one who died and rose again.
As I sat in St. Bart’s, the priest marked a cross of the parishioners’ foreheads and said, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Some might say that these people are superstitious. I say they come to this place because of recognition of the divine. God has stamped an inner-witness within humanity and they are responding to it (obviously some do it for the wrong reasons, but I’m not there to judge). Interestingly, the dust and the divine converge once again in a theologically profound way. We have seen this before. God comes to us in Jesus, wrapped in human flesh. The divine and the dust are one. Our Lord is fully human. Fully divine. Furthermore, the creation narrative speaks of God breathing life into humanity. We see it again. Dust and Divinity.
The earthiness of the ashes serves as a critique to what I call a “spiritualized spirituality.” This term is not a redundancy. Rather, it is a neo-Gnostic approach to the spiritual life. Essentially, it means that all meaningful spiritual realities are to be found in an intangible experience. It says that true spirituality has to do exclusively with visions and goose bumps. But the ashes teach us that true spirituality is rooted in the mundane. Rooted in the earthiness of the human experience.
Last night, as I marked the foreheads of people coming for ashes, I was deeply moved. There are so many broken people in the world. In a way, the ashes gave many of us the permission to feel our brokenness and look with hope to a day of resurrection.