Ash Wednesday and Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday and when I come home from church this evening, I’ll have an ashy cross on my forehead.

This morning I sat in a favorite café pondering “Why Ash Wednesday? Why Lent?” I certainly didn’t grow up with Lenten observances. In fact, I suspect that church leadership probably frowned upon such observances as getting a little too chummy with “popish practices.” Proof? My mother (definitely not a leader; definitely influenced by leaders) wouldn’t even buy Christmas cards that pictured Mary and Baby Jesus.

I sort of slid into Advent and Lent. All those Lutherans in Minnesota. Heretical authors like Madeleine L’Engle, John Stott, Fleming Rutledge, Dallas Willard. Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian pastors in Bonn. And—oh yes—the prophets and poets Joel and David.

Had I investigated these observances early on, I could probably have found justification for Advent: an effective custom to dilute pre-Christmas greed. But Lent? Haven’t we been freed from such legalism as fasting? Doesn’t amazing grace pour over us like an all-enveloping white robe? Fish on Lenten Fridays? What about Peter’s sheet-from-heaven vision?

Back to this morning’s café experience. Hard to concentrate with music pouring out of the loudspeaker. Clatter from the kitchen. Conversations at neighboring booths. (Why can’t people remember that we use inside voices in public space?) All this “noise” is merely a picture of the world’s less definable—but often more heart splintering—noise that constantly fights to distract me from the God of my heart, from the “think on these things” of Philippians, the “pay the most careful attention” and “keep your eyes fixed” of Hebrews.

Let’s face it, I need prompts to keep my focus and Ash Wednesday and the Lenten weeks accomplish just that. When tonight’s smudgy ashes begin to fade, I’ll remember them and think more seriously about responding quickly to the Holy Spirit’s convicting nudges. I’ll ponder the meaning and results of repentance. I’ll meditate on the days Jesus and his friends were traveling to Jerusalem, “interrupted” by people like little children, blind beggars, and a little man in a tree so the interruptions in my life pale in comparison.

Tonight the ashes will remind me that no good thing dwells in me, but because Christ faced the fires of the cross, was figuratively turned into ash, and then raised into fulness of life, I too have been made whole.

Easter is coming. But not yet.