Each year Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, a six week (40 day) period that climaxes in Holy Week and the great celebration of Easter Sunday. These weeks on the Christian calendar are meant to remind us of a very important truth: the grace of God in Christ forgives us of all our sins, and it came at great cost; there must be suffering before glory.
It is vital for us to never forget all God’s work for us as individuals – forgiveness, healing, redemption, love, compassion, and satisfaction. This all has its fulfillment, for the Christian, in Jesus who accomplished this through his cross and resurrection. It is by his stripes that we are healed; it is through his suffering that there is glory and praise. Twenty-one years ago at this time of year, my wife was on total bed rest due to her pregnancy with our youngest daughter. Having gone into labor only three months into her pregnancy, she was immediately confined to staying flat on her back for four months. We lived every one of those days with the very real possibility of losing a child, having been told by doctors that we needed to brace for the worse, since our unborn girl was only given a 17% chance of making it to the outside world alive.
In a very real sense my wife had to die to herself so that our daughter might live; and, the result of her months of suffering led to the glory of a beautiful and healthy baby girl. We will not forget all of God’s benefits toward us, redeeming our suffering and replacing it with great joy. Great praise arises out of great suffering.
God remembers that we are dust, that we are mortal humans. Sometimes we lose sight of our mortality. We do not remember that death awaits us and that in some ways a good life is really preparing for a good death. I once read that each morning a group of monks, when walking to breakfast, take one shovel-full of dirt and remove it from their potential graves. The younger monks have shallow graves, and the older monks must take the time to get down into their graves and climb back out. It is a daily reminder that life is to be lived to the full because it will not last. God sees our mortality and is slow to anger, choosing to abound in love and compassion. He acts by removing our transgressions completely, even though we do not deserve it. Some day we will all die, but God’s love will still be here because God’s love is permanent.
In order to remember our mortality, and to offer our lives as a sacrifice of praise, in this season of Lent we are encouraged to prepare for the glory of the resurrection by feeling something of the suffering, however small it is, of our Lord Jesus. In doing so, it is to be a daily reminder that Jesus gave his life for us so that we might have life. The ash applied to the forehead on this day is symbolic of the thing or things that we are giving up. Perhaps time is an idol for you; it is the thing precious to you and you want to hold on to it and serve it. Perhaps there are possessions that you grasp and hold onto in such a way that you can’t imagine living without that certain thing. Maybe there is an activity that you enjoy to the point of allowing that certain thing to shape and center your day. This is the time to identify those things, and to make a choice to fast, to abstain from that thing or activity in order to remember Jesus and to worship him only.
The ministry of the church is to assist us in being aware of the movements, rhythms, and seasons of Christian time. Now is the time of repentance. Today is the day to be reminded of our sin and mortality, and God’s grace and immortality. Let us experience death so that we will experience life.