The ashes of our celebrations

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent that will be a time of penitence and preparation for Easter.

As you know from last week’s post on obedience, I’m struggling to obey God’s call. Being sorry for that struggle comes easily to me. Being ashamed of it does, too. However, Lent isn’t about shame. It’s about repenting – turning back around toward God. And that’s exactly what I intend to do during this Lenten season: turn to face God and to learn to hear His voice and obey His call in my life.

To mark that intention, I’ll go to my church’s Ash Wednesday service tonight and have a minister place ashes on my forehead as a reminder of my desire to repent and of the promise of God’s gracious forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice for us.

Even as far back as the old testament, people repented by wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. While I’m glad the church doesn’t require us to wear sackcloth until Easter, I’m also glad for the blessing of wearing ashes, even for such a short time, as a reminder to focus on God’s work in this season.

May I tell you a bit about the ashes at my church? 

Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday mark the most joyous celebrations in our church. Palm Sunday is less raucous than our Easter services, but it offers a glimmer of joy at the beginning of Holy Week, the week we mark Christ’s arrest, torture and crucifixion. On Palm Sunday, to commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the children’s choirs and adult choir process in waving palms. The children crowd in to the front of the church, happily waving their palms and sometimes batting each other with them. They know it’s a time of celebration, and hey, if you can torture your little sister standing in the row in front of you by hitting her with a palm branch, that’s just a bonus, right?

Our choir director retired this past summer, but for many years, he has taken those palms from Palm Sunday and burned them down into ash. That’s right: the ash we use to mark the beginning of Lent comes from the palms we wave at the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent.

There’s something I find comforting in that completed circle from one year to the next. Our celebrations in life come and go. Some are more joyous than others, but they never last. Think of what was left of your last party: probably a stack of dishes by the sink, a full trash can and recycle bin, and good memories of time with family and friends.

Sometimes, all that’s left of a good celebration is ash. We generally think of ash as something to be disposed of, something useless and even mournful. But even in the ashes, we find blessing. Ashes are reminders of something past, but the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of the hope we have for our future. In the ashes, we find a closeness to God, a reminder that He desires our coming nearer to Him, and a promise of Easter on the horizon.

Today’s ashes mark us for God, a mark worth of celebrating. Not in arrogance, but in humility. Are you willing to carry His mark?

I’d love to hear about your Ash Wednesday traditions. Have you attended an Ash Wednesday service already? Or will you go to one later this evening? Even if your church doesn’t have a service of ashes, I hope you’ll see this day – and the season of Lent – as a blessing and not a burden.

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