I remember the jolt that resonated through my mind and body at an Ash Wednesday service I attended many years ago. Our priest stuck his thumb in a bowl of ashes that he held in his hand. As he rubbed those ashes across my forehead in the shape of a cross, he looked me in the eye and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It was sobering. It’s not every day that you walk up to someone and he reminds you that you will die and that your body will decompose, returning to the earth.
Christianity doesn’t hold back from hard truths. It is not some mystical escape, but a realistic faith. From the very first book of the Bible, we learn that we are made in the image of God, but also that we are corrupted by the fall, doomed to die. Our faith tells us that we have eternal life in Christ, and yet our bodies will fail and our life on earth will end.
I went to work that day feeling rather self-conscious about the mark on my forehead – not wanting to accidently smear the ashes around or rub them off, aware of them, but trying not to think about them. One colleague looked at me and said, “You have some dirt on your –” before pausing and realizing what she was seeing.
I didn’t grow up in a church with a more formal liturgy, which is probably why I was a little more self-aware and struck by the words of the service. But for the past twenty-some years my family has attended an Anglican church, and we’re joined with Christians around the world in following the church calendar. The liturgical year doesn’t start in January, but it begins in November, with four weeks of Advent and then twelve days of Christmas. The church year then moves to Lent and Easter Week, and on to Pentecost and “Ordinary Time.”
It’s less frenetic than the commercial rush from holiday to holiday, or the busy-ness of dealing with children and the school calendar, or the craziness of the media’s endless election year. It’s as if the church marks time in its own way, separate from the world, but still connected. The ashes that are used to mark a cross on the forehead come from palm branches collected after Palm Sunday the previous year. So this year’s service is connected to last year’s Easter week, and the cycle continues.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of preparation for and anticipation of Holy Week and Easter – celebrating the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. While Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent somewhat differently, in the West it begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days of fasting, confession and repentance, praying and “almsgiving” – compassionate giving to the poor and needy. Sundays are feast days, so Lent actually lasts longer than forty days.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes this about Lent, explaining how the disciplines of fasting, giving, feasting and prayer shape and change us:
Just as Advent gives us forty days to prepare for Christ’s birth Lent is a time of year to remember that God has seen fit to make us not airy spirits but embodied human beings living in a beautiful, material world. The soul fills the body the way fire fills a lump of coal, and what the body learns, the soul absorbs as well. Spiritual disciplines such as fasting are analogous to weight-lifting equipment. One who uses them in a disciplined way will be stronger, not just when he’s lifting weights, but also for every situation he meets.
We don’t fast and pray and give to earn salvation. That’s a gift freely given when we believe in Christ. But Christ calls us to be disciples – to follow Him and become like him. That takes practice and effort on our part. Spiritual disciplines are actions we do with our body that God, in His grace, uses to change us. Disciplines like prayer, worship, Bible reading, giving, confession and meditation.
As Dallas Willard teaches, the disciplines put us in a place to receive more of God’s grace, which transforms our hearts and minds. We don’t do these things to win favor from God, but to cooperate with Him in changing us to become more like Christ.
Tonight, I’ll be attending another Ash Wednesday service, so I don’t have ashes on my forehead at work all day. You may not attend a more formal liturgical church, but still, I’d encourage you to think about choosing something to do to prepare your heart for Easter Week. Whether it’s fasting or praying or giving in some way, I encourage you to intentionally make room to celebrate more fully Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.