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February 22, 2020

What is Ash Wednesday?

By Jeanne Harrison

For years I viewed Ash Wednesday and Lent as the black sheep of evangelical Christianity. I didn’t really understand where they came from, what to do with them, or if they belonged in my life. Are they Roman Catholic traditions? Protestant traditions? Expressions of legalism or of grace?

Let me tell you…they are beautiful.

They are Jesus-traditions for Jesus-followers.

Ash Wednesday points back, not to the beginning of any one church, but to the beginning of humanity. Genesis 2:7 says, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

Can you see it? God Almighty bending down to breathe life into dust? That’s our origin story—yours, mine, everyone’s—from the famous to the forgotten. We were created intentionally, imaginatively, intimately.

Then one chapter later, Adam and Eve welcome sin into the world. In Genesis 3:19 God spells out the consequences for Adam, and really, for all of us: “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.”

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are transient creatures, fragile and finite. When I remember that I am dust, I feel small. Penitent. How foolish to live like I’m the center of the universe, like the world is my prize and I’ll inhabit it forever.

I must admit, sometimes shame creeps into my repentance. I’m embarrassed of my own arrogance, my constant failure. I feel pressure to do better, to make the most of my days before returning to dust.

Yesterday, I took a break from writing this article, and in a completely unrelated study, I stumbled on Psalm 103. Imagine my surprise when I read these verses: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).

Incredible, isn’t it?

When God looks at you and me, He can still see the dust. No matter how much we puff ourselves up to impress the world, He sees straight through us. He sees the very essence of our nature. Our frailty. Our fear. Our desperate need of Him, whether we realize it or not.

If I fashioned a creature out of dust, imbued it with life and purpose, and then watched it parade around as though it owned the world, I’d roll my eyes at the idiocy. I’d probably squash it with my thumb, or at the very least, shame it into submission.

But when God remembers that we are dust, He doesn’t feel irritation or contempt. He feels compassion.

This is the heart of God! He loves us in our humanity. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His faithful love toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).

Ash Wednesday readies our hearts for Resurrection Sunday. Historically, it is the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of preparation and repentance as Christians anticipate Good Friday and Easter. At Grace, we commemorate Ash Wednesday with a simple, 30-minute service that includes corporate prayer and worship. It’s a time to humble ourselves before God, repent of our sin, and remember the gospel.

At the end of the service, one of our pastors will mark your forehead with ash. The dust on your face is symbolic of the dust in your bones. It tells the story of your origin and destination. From dust to dust.

But dust is only half the story. As we lean into the Lenten season, we ready ourselves to celebrate redemption. Though our bodies are destined for dust, in Christ our souls are bound for glory! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

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