Christianity Today and having read an article about the importance of Ash Wednesday from Relevant Magazine, I have to reflect about my own feelings towards this practice.
I didn't know that Ash Wednesday is celebrated by some Protestant denominations (ie: Anglicans and Episcopalians) and I've forgotten that the words, "From dust you came and unto dust you will return" are uttered. My childhood mind remembered the somberness of the day, and how the teachers, nuns, and priests shushed our childhood rambunctiousness even during recess. I don't remember ever learning that Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality or that, "On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we're invited to a time to look at our missteps and our regrets, our longings and our losses, and offer them all to God, who not only accepts them but transforms them" (Rivadeneira, Relevant Magazine).
With all of it.
One part of me immediately rebels against the idea of Ash Wednesday because I saw it practiced by very hypocritical people. A year of unrepentant living and come Lent, a period of "repentance" before another year of unrepentant lives. It's a cycle even I was critical of at an early age. But think through it, I thought. Pause, reflect, and figure out where you would stand today. And I still disagree.
After Jesus' sacrifice to redeem us from our past and our sins, I don't think it's appropriate to reflect on our "missteps and our regrets, our longings and our losses." The slate has been wiped clean. I know the danger of being sin-focused. I know the danger of taking "a time to look" on the past. I'm introverted and I do a lot of introspecting. Introspection is not bad, but it can be a trap and an enemy's foothold to fill your mind with things of the past instead of filling your mind with things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
I completely disagree that it is "through lament that we find healing." I never found healing through lamentation. I found healing through the restorative power of Jesus Christ. Lamenting is not enough. I know what it's like to lament all day long. There is no healing in looking back, in reflecting, and in lamenting about our missteps and regrets. All it does is make us sin-focused. It reminds us of how much we've fallen short. Lamenting is not enough.
Rivadeneira adds that on Ash Wednesday and Lent, you offer all those missteps, regrets, and losses to God. He will accept them and transform them. Yes, God has the power to take away the pain of your sins and your past. God wants you to come to Him. But not with lamentation. With repentance.
My first problem with Ash Wednesday was that it is a time for "self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter" (Olsen, Christianity Today). After which, many people go back to their normal routine. Nothing has changed.
Now, I learn that Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our own mortality. From dust you came and unto dust you shall return. I disagree with putting so much stock on remembering our shortcomings. Yes, we're sinners. Now what are you gonna do about it? Wallow in your sinful nature? Set aside a day of somber recollection? Don't celebrate life because a tradition tells you to be somber and mindful of your missteps, regrets, longings, and losses? Or do you repent and move forward? Celebrate that God sent Jesus for us, and that salvation can happen everyday, and is a cause for celebration (Psalm 118:22-24).
I don't see the ashen cross as a symbol of my faith, or a symbol of my repentance, or a demonstration of my solidarity with Jesus. This is another issue I'm taking up. I agree with one person who commented on the article citing Matthew 6:16-18. When you fast, you don't advertise it to the entire world. Likewise, don't let your left hand know that your right hand is giving to the needy (Matthew 6:3-4). Point being, why the need for such an obvious symbol of your lamentation or repentance? Much like putting on a WWJD bracelet, we're no more in solidarity with Jesus just because we wear a symbol.
I do not doubt that Ash Wednesday holds a very deep spiritual meaning for a lot of people. But I've never met them. I've met people who participate in Ash Wednesday because of tradition, because it's expected, and because it's time to turn back to God for the next 40 days. A symbol doesn't change you.
The ashen cross - a remembrance of our sins and mortality - should not be "Christ's own signature on us." Instead, it should be Jesus Christ's transforming power that should be His signature on us. His sacrifice on the cross, our salvation through His love, grace, and mercy, and our faith growth as evidenced by our actions from love for Him and others...these should be Christ's own signature on us.
It would be refreshing to meet people who genuinely have deep spirituality through practicing traditions like Ash Wednesday. I know you - whoever you are - meet God differently. Even though you won't change my mind, I like insightful conversations.