Today is Ash Wednesday. This ancient church tradition goes beyond Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. It a time of self-reflection. Many call it a time of self-mortification. This is why it is often a time of fasting (of varying sorts). Truthfully, the fasting is often something that should be done anyway as a form of self-improvement or just a matter of separating oneself from the immediate to dedicate time to the truly important.
The words in Isaiah allude to this. Sacrificing (e.g., fasting) because it is the religious thing to do is not the point. It seems, in fact, that religious sacrificing is actually an affront to God when one’s life around it is not God-honoring. That should be a gut check (no pun intended) for us all.
Pursuit of the knowledge of God without pursuit of the heart of God is often an empty pursuit. Yes, we can learn more facts about God. That doesn’t mean we actually know God. God wants us to know God, not merely know of God.
2020 was a banner year of self-mortification realization. From politics, to race, to gender, to the police, to riots, to COVID, there was so much that God seemed to be telling the church. The church has been too busy, for too long, doing the religious sacrificing without knowing the heart of God. Looking back on 2020, you may well have an idea of what God wants you to put to death.
From an Isaiah point of view, 2020 was a great year! All that extra stuff (much of it dead) just needs to be cut off! The church, and people in general, still want to cling to what is dead, rather than lean into what and who gives life.
The Psalmist though cries out the Lenten cry, “HAVE MERCY ON ME!” While Lent is to be a time of putting un-Christ-like things and behaviors to death, it is such a time of joy, for God had mercy on us. This mercy, and the joy because of it, is part of our witness to the world. It is part of that which makes us Christian.
Some churches will have Ash Wednesday in the morning, so that the congregants go into the world proclaiming Christ. It could seem to be a billboard of, “look how religious I am!” For some communities that may actually be the case. On the other hand, Ash Wednesday is a “stamp of strangeness” for most people. If you were to go to work (whether in person or on a video call) with a big black cross on your forehead, you might get some strange looks. Others might even mock you. Yet, it is a chance that it might open the door to talking about Jesus.
It isn’t bad to wear a cross of ashes, nor is it bad to fast. It is about the why and the rest of your life.
- What does a cross of ashes mean or represent to you? Why?
- What have you decided to “put to death” for Lent? Why that? If nothing, why nothing?
- How do mercy and joy fit into your understanding of Lent?
Lord, as we begin this time of reflection, help us to truly be reflective and not reflexive. Grant us the grace to see more of you and to become more like you. Most of all, help us to reflect your light into the world. Amen.