Soot on my clothes, soot on my hands, soot on my face. Sometimes after I clean out my fireplace, I come out with ashes all over me. It’s all accidental, and I’m never thrilled about it.
By contrast, on Ash Wednesday, millions of Christ-followers around the world will intentionally have ashes placed on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. Why would anyone do that?
Ash Wednesday (for 2017, March 1) marks the beginning of a church season called Lent. As a season of preparation leading up to Easter (40 days excluding Sundays; 46 days including Sundays), Lent invites us to reflect on our lives and to anticipate God’s ongoing work in us and in the world.
Starting on Ash Wednesday, Lent serves as a reminder. We’re reminded that it’s not natural for us to realign our lives with the life of Jesus Christ. Realignment requires intention.
Intentional realignment calls for laying down some things and picking up others. Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent.” Technically, this is a laying down. But I think it might miss the intent of Lent.
Throughout Lent, we’re invited to reflectively lay down thoughts, actions, habits, and ways of being that lead us away from Jesus Christ. And we’re invited to intentionally pick up practices that help us pursue faith, hope, and love in Jesus Christ.
Most Ash Wednesday gatherings include what’s known as the imposition of ashes. As a leader places ashes on a person’s forehead, he or she says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement echoes Genesis 2:7, when God creates the first human from the dust of the earth. It also reminds us that our time on earth is limited, and that we get to choose what we do with the days we are given.
This year, if you choose to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, perhaps those ashes will serve as a reminder and commitment of what you’re laying down and what you’re picking up. The first part of the cross marked on your forehead—the horizontal line—looks like a subtraction symbol. This symbol can remind you that there are thoughts, actions, habits and ways of being that are hampering full life in Jesus Christ and ought to be discarded.
The second part of the cross that will be marked on your forehead transforms the subtraction symbol into an addition symbol. This symbol emphasizes the fact that when Jesus invites us to follow him, he invites us to pick up manifold expressions of the kingdom of God like faith, hope, love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, and gentleness.
This Ash Wednesday, I invite you to start a journey toward Easter Sunday. Like all worthwhile journeys, this one takes work. You’ll be setting some things aside and picking others up, perhaps for the very first time. And yes, you’ll get a little dirty. (Don’t worry—it’s not a lot of ash.) At the same time, you’ll be reminding yourself (and others) that a God-aligned life prepares you to more deeply receive God’s love and to more fully participate in God’s kingdom.
Cedar Hills will hold an Ash Wednesday gathering on March 1, 2017, at 7 p.m. in the main auditorium.