Today is Ash Wednesday. Here in Romania, that name isn’t used very much, and I often have to explain what it means. Back in New York City, less explanation is needed. Ride the subway today, or walk the sidewalks, and you will see masses of people with a little smudge on each of their foreheads — a small cross, made with ashes and olive oil, pressed on by the thumb of their parish priest. You’ll see the same thing in big cities all over the world, as well as small town and villages.
The ashes are put on in church, as part of a service. Christians confess their sins together, and ask for God’s forgiveness. They hear the words God spoke to Adam: Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. This means that we are mortal, fragile, dying creatures; left to ourselves, we would dry up and blow away. But the promise of God is that we can live — that we can have abundant life, eternal life — not because of our own strength or goodness, but as the gift of a loving God.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Fast of Easter as the Orthodox call it. It is an invitation to give up worldly pleasures, to take on spiritual duties. Less meat, more prayer; less time on Twitter, more time helping people in trouble. But even those things are not the real point to Lent. The real point is to turn toward God, humbled by the admission of our sin, hoping in the promise of God’s forgiveness.
The ashes themselves don’t really matter. Some churches, including some Lutherans, don’t even use them. After all, Jesus did say, “When you fast, don’t disfigure your faces like the hypocrites.” That’s a sober warning to all of us. If we go through the motions — put on some ash, say some prayer, even read some passages from the Bible — but do not really turn our hearts toward God, then we have missed the entire point. God doesn’t want our little ceremonies, any more than God wants us to sacrifice a bull on an altar. ”The sacrifices of God are a broken sprit,” says Psalm 51. ”A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
And in return for the broken heart, God will give us a new and perfect heart; in return for our broken life, a new and everlasting one. So come and join the company of repentant souls, the assembly of sinners who are not afraid to name their sins because they trust that God will love them anyway. Come and join us tonight at 18:00, not for the sake of the ashes, but for the promise of a new life.