Happy Ash Wednesday!
Yeah, that sounds goofy—about as weird as when I people wish me, “Happy Memorial Day.” I never get that.
But really, Ash Wednesday is a day for the Christian to bless with happiness, for the same reason we call the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion “Good” Friday.
That we do not rejoice in Ash Wednesday has nothing to do with this day which begins the season of Lent. The reason we do not think of it as a happy day, kicking off a joy-filled season, is because we practice it backward.
We get it just plain wrong.
“What did you give up for Lent?” Isn’t THAT the phrase you will hear today and in the early days of this penitential season of sober-mindedness?
When I was a kid, it was our Roman Catholic practice to give up something during Lent. We were never forced to, but I usually felt that it was my duty. Two lenten seasons are memorable from my teenage years. They are the year that I gave up cookies and the one I tried to go ice cream-free—my two beloved sweet treats. I recall doing quite well. Not perfect. Weakening at the end.
I didn’t give these up because I needed to lose weight; in those days, I needed to gain weight! I gave them up purely because I so enjoyed them and truly did not need them.
What on earth does giving up a favorite food have to do with the season of Lent?
We call this a penitential season. To be penitent means to be sorry for your sins, your failings, your offenses to the Lord and to your neighbor. Penitence is the result of a heart broken by guilt so that all iniquity might bleed out.
But, penitence needs to go somewhere more than feeling guilty. The Bible word from the original Greek is metanoia, which means “to turn one’s mind around.” This makes sense. The penitent turns his mind around from his sins. But, to what then does he turn his mind?
If you feel you have the quick reply, “Well, of course, he turns his mind toward being a good person!” you are not entirely wrong, but you are far from correct.
As the twelfth century theologian, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, coined, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In the context of today’s reflection, this would mean that, try as you might to be good, the fact that you have sinned does not change your path, no matter how sincere or successful might be your Lenten fasting. Sinners are damned, no matter how hard they work at creating a good report card.
Forgiven sinners, however, are saved from damnation, from the devil, from eternal death, when their penitence has them turn their mind toward Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of their faith, who endured the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12:2), who had no sin in Himself but, for the sake of sinners became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The “somewhere” repentance needs to go is to a place where it might bear fruit. On the cross, from where the Lord Jesus declared, “It is finished (John 19:30),” He bore the fruits of forgiveness, life, and salvation and, because He lives from the grave and reigns from heaven, He is able to fulfill His promise, “Even though you die, yet shall you live (John 11:25).”
His fruit grows and ripens in the believer.
In the picture, note the shape of the ashes on the young lady’s forehead. The ashes remind us that we are but dust and ashes, while the cross reminds us that the Lord Jesus bit our dust and rose from the ashes so that, as He promises, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40).”
Do you still want to give up something for Lent? Go ahead and do it—but don’t do it if you think you need to deny yourself to make yourself more holy in God’s sight, because you won’t. You can’t. Only the Lord Jesus accomplishes that. If you fast, do it for your health—sure, for your physical health which we Christians value as God’s gift to us, but more for your spiritual health. Use the time you would be eating to meditate on your Lord Jesus’ love for you, reflect on Bible passages which speak of His work for you, and pray, pray, pray for everyone and everything you know whom and which is in need of Christ.
The season of Lent is all about the work of Jesus Christ for our forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Turning our minds toward Him, it is easy to wish each other a blessed Lent and a happy Ash Wednesday!