Today is Ash Wednesday: a day ignored by many evangelical churches. Actually, it is often not just ignored but demeaned. Many evangelical churches see the observance of the day as strictly Roman Catholic. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of the day is a detriment to our faith as Christians and to our vision of the world.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Season of Lent that prepares us for Easter. Ash Wednesday is a time to think about the reality and pain of our sin, our need to acknowledge, confess and repent of our sin, and to experience God’s forgiveness in Christ for our sin. It’s a solemn day, but it is also a glorious day of celebration for Christ’s willingness to suffer and die as a means of redeeming us from sin and setting us free from the grip of sin. The imposition of ashes is not magic but is rather a tangible affirmation of scripture that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Acknowledging the reality of sin and our need for God’s forgiveness is central to our faith. Ash Wednesday is simply a means of visibly acknowledging this core truth.
But it’s important for us to understand that Ash Wednesday is not just personal. This day is not limited to my sin and my relationship with God or your sin and your relationship with God. This is a day to see beyond ourselves to the power of Christ’s death for the whole world.
I was thinking about this over the weekend during our missions emphasis. As I listened to a missionary speak about the world and God’s call to share the good news with the world, I was struck in a new way about the connection I had been missing between missions and Ash Wednesday.
I was reminded that we can’t possibly love the world as we are called (John 20:21; Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:8) until we recognize our need for Jesus. Apathy for the world isn’t birthed in an environment that is unafraid to confess and repent but in an environment that is so afraid to admit wrong that confession and repentance are eliminated. We might seem to care about the world. We might on some level even promote outreach to the world. But I worry that it’s halfhearted, anemic. Why? Because when we are bound up hiding and ignoring our sin we don’t feel freedom to risk loving people, particularly people who don’t know Jesus.
I’m not saying that people who ignore Ash Wednesday don’t really care about the world. Many do, and they find other avenues to acknowledge their need for Christ. But I am saying that Ash Wednesday does not make us less of a world Christian, but more. Confession and repentance always lead us to forgiveness, to a greater awareness of God’s presence with us, to a more open heart to God and when our hearts are open to God, they are always more open to others.
Ash Wednesday is not an ending; it’s a beginning. It’s not a time for accomplishing; it’s a time of readiness for accomplishing. It’s not a day to be self-focused—even though it seems like it; it’s a day to be self-honest so that we can live in God’s forgiveness and freedom to be others-focused…just like Jesus.
So, if you care for the world, let me encourage you to embrace the elements of Ash Wednesday, if not the day itself. The more honest we are about our need for Jesus, the more open we are see and love others like Jesus.