"Yet even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13 ESV) Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. This day begins the 40 days of reflection upon what Christ Jesus has accomplished with His Passion. He carries the sins of all mankind as He walks through this life as the sinless Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, the Promised One to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Lent is about what He has accomplished for us and for our salvation.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of a reality that we don't like to face. The Lord says to Adam on the day he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19 ESV) Death became a reality on this day. Each person, born of a sinful man and woman, is born with sin. This original sin brings us to physical death and eternal damnation. As we read, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23 ESV) We are all going to face death. We shall all be placed into a grave and will return to the very dust we came from. Try as we like, and we do try everything in our power, we will not live forever. Our bodies will fail. We will die. That is the stark reality that Ash Wednesday brings forward.
The tradition of wearing ashes on this day began in the pietistic actions of well meaning Christians. It is to remind them of the fact that they are ashes and to ashes they shall return. Some of our Lutheran churches have revived this action in the recent years. There is nothing wrong with the action as it is meant to remind each person that they are sinful and because of that sin, they are going to die.
I do not follow those who have been reviving this tradition. Why? Partly because I grew up in the Lutheran Church in the time when that was seen as Roman Catholic. And partly because I also grew up in the time when the Lutheran Church saw that as drawing attention to yourself rather than to the work of Christ. Following the Ash Wednesday Gospel it was not an action that was done. "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 6:1 ESV) "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
Lent is a time for us to focus upon Christ. I believe that the use of ashes can be beneficial in the worship service to help the individual see the impact of sin upon his life but then it should end. When the person walks out of the church that day, they should wipe their forehead of the ashes and go forth forgiven in Christ. Those of the world don't need to see the ashes for it then focuses the attention on the ashes or the individual rather than Christ. That, and we are told not to be doing our actions for others to see. As Joel said in the verse that we started with, "Rend your heart and not your garments." Ashes on the forehead do not change the heart. The Gospel changes the heart. The Holy Spirit changes the heart.
Is that change seen by others? Yes. As our Lord says, "Let your light so shine before others , so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16 ESV) Your heart and life is changed, not by ashes, but by the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. Your life is to reflect Christ in how you live, talk and treat others.
Enter into this holy season of Lent, focused upon Christ's work not yours. As you walk through Lent, let your heart be changes from one filled with sin to one filled with the love of Christ. We are not pietists. Nor are we Catholic. We are Lutheran. We can use ashes or we can not use ashes. They are a non-thing for us. On this Ash Wednesday, may the focus not be on you but on Christ. As you reflect on your death, reflect on His life. For there, you are given life.
And, so it begins. 40 days of Lent. Let's walk together and look not to ourselves but to Christ alone.