Today is Ash Wednesday, and it is one of my favorite days of the year. I never really celebrated this beautiful day growing up… which is a shame. As the first day of Lent—the 40 day period of repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter—Ash Wednesday provides a perfect chance to quiet oneself and get in the proper penitential mode for the Lenten season.
At my church and at many churches worldwide today, Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as L.A.), but it is beautiful. What a fantastic symbol of what Lent is all about: our coming into a focused, reverential meditation upon and solidarity with the suffering of Christ.
Ashes are a material of decay and death, but they also allude to new life. After a forest fire, for example, the ashes provide nutrients for the rebirth of a new generation of trees. And here it all comes together: “Lent” is derived from the Middle English “lente” which means “spring” or “springtime.” Though it comes early this year and spring feels miles away, Ash Wednesday is our first glimpse of that eternal newness and redemption just beyond the horizon.
I love Ash Wednesday for the way that it symbolizes—so concisely—what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humbled and sacrificial. But it’s not like this is a defeatist exercise in self-flagellation or something. No, on the contrary, to “give up” or “sacrifice” in the name of Christ is (or should be) the height of our joy. We should strive to be like Christ, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…" (Hebrews 12:2). For the joy set before him… That should be why we endure suffering and embrace self-denial. It’s paradoxical and mysterious and counterintuitive—certainly. But when I feel those cold ashes spread across my forehead, it all makes some sort of wonderful sense.
Paul Tillich once said that “man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.” And I think in Christian sacraments and rituals (like communion, baptism, or the imposition of ashes), we can see how true this is. Ash Wednesday is more than just a day that follows Mardi Gras and kicks off the Christian period of Lent. It’s a symbol that exists within and yet points beyond the materiality and ephemera of this place and this time to the transcendent and restorative oneness of the “ultimate concern” which is God Himself.