Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our humanity.
And, that is precisely so. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday (which is next week, on Feb. 13) is all about reminding us of three fundamental truths that we often prefer to ignore:
- that death is waiting for each of us (or, put another way, time’s a-wastin’)
- that in our head-long rush through life, we make plenty of mistakes (we all fall down — multiple times!)
- that God is waiting for us to turn from this head-long rush so that we might find life and forgiveness in God
The first of these truths seems obvious enough. Each of us is mortal, each of us has a limited time on this earth. Much ancient spiritual wisdom counsels us to live with an awareness of this reality, not so as to make us morbid and sad creatures, but actually to help us appreciate what a tremendous gift life is to us and that each precious day of it should be embraced as fully as possible. Yet, most of us go through life pretending that our time frame for this life is infinite, as if death will never come to us. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a forceful reminder that this way of living is self-deceptive: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There is a big focus in the Ash Wednesday service on sin — again, not a popular topic with most of us. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that sin does indeed cling closely. This does not mean that we are horrible, terrible creatures that deserve nothing but contempt. It simply means that we make mistakes, and a lot of them. Some of these mistakes are small, others are huge. The net sum of these mistakes is that we end up living distorted lives and we bring distortion into the lives of others. The forcefulness of the “sin language” in church on Ash Wednesday is a testament to how hard it is to get us to admit that we do make mistakes that cause real pain for ourselves and for others.
The third truth I mentioned is perhaps the least obvious. It is captured preeminently in the words “repent” and “repentance” on Ash Wednesday. Far from being an invitation to feel badly about ourselves and sorry for all of our mistakes, the invitation to repentance is really an invitation to recognize that the only way we can deal effectively with the reality of death is by finding life in God — life that cannot be taken away from us. It is also an invitation to accept God’s gift of forgiveness — a gift that frees us from our need for perfection, from our guilt over our mistakes, and liberates us to embrace the mistake-ridden yet beloved people that we are.
Ash Wednesday, perhaps more than any other day in the church calendar, invites us to get real about ourselves. Indeed, it insists that we get real about ourselves. And it launches us into the gift of Lent, a season in which we are invited to practice living with the knowledge that we all fall down, multiple times, and yet God invites us to get real, to turn toward God, and to live in the grace of forgiving love.