Ash Wednesday

I remember it like it was yesterday. I can see sixth grade Rachael standing by her locker that Wednesday morning, retrieving binders and books for the day ahead, completely unaware that there was anything different about that spring day.

Needless to say, I was utterly confused when my best friend Micah walked up with black stuff on her forehead in the shape of a cross. Naturally, I licked my thumb and prepared to help her out by reaching over to wipe the dirt off her head. 

She batted my hand away and ducked her head to the side, quickly asking, “What are you doing?!” to which I of course replied, “Cleaning your face so you don’t look so weird.”

Her response to me was one of equal confusion as to how I didn’t know — “It’s Ash Wednesday! I went to Mass this morning! These are my ashes.” She sauntered off on her way to class as I stood dumbfounded. Ashes? Must be a Catholic thing... I thought to myself as I walked into class.

Fast forward seventeen years, and tomorrow is yet again Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Tomorrow you may see men and women walking around with ashes on their foreheads or hands in the shape of a cross. And you may have to resist the urge to help them out by wiping the ashes away. Because if you didn’t grow up in the Catholic church or in a liturgical church that observed this important day in the Church calendar, these ashes may make you feel confused or uncertain, like sixth-grade, Southern Baptist Rachael who had never heard about this specific day or ritual.

Many of you may have observed Ash Wednesday for years, and you know the beautiful symbolism and remembrance  that takes place on this specific day.

The ashes represent repentance and purification from sin. The ashes used are from burned palm leaves that were used in celebrating Palm Sunday the year before. In Ash Wednesday services around the world you’ll likely hear Scripture readings of Genesis 3:19 which reminds us, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” and Mark 1:15 which calls us to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” 

The Old Testament records ashes being used as a sign of penitence and mourning. Ash Wednesday is intended to make us pause and remember that we are human, we are sinful, and we are in need of a Savior. It was created as a way of relating to Christ in His suffering.

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and the beginning of the Lenten season that leads us to Easter Sunday. Many people today still fast, or “give up” something for Lent as a form of self-denial and connecting to the sufferings of Christ.

So what if you aren’t Catholic? What if you didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday? Does that mean this day is just not for you? Does that mean Lent doesn't matter?

By no means! I believe that the season of Lent can be a special opportunity for every believer - regardless of your denomination or upbringing. Here are just a few ways that we can use tomorrow, and the entire season of Lent, as an opportunity for reflection and worship.

  • Fasting
    • For centuries, men and women have fasted during the season of Lent. Jesus fasted, and he taught about fasting in a way that implied it would be an obvious rhythm for the believer as he used language like when you fast... Fasting is not to make us better or more religious than others, and it's not to earn us anything in God's sight. It is a means of denying self and depending on Jesus. It is a way to sacrifice or surrender something we value and replace it with Christ. When we fast from food, it's not to lose weight or to feel better about ourselves - it's to say, Jesus, I need YOU more than I need anything on earth - even food for daily sustenance. We pray for strength and we surrender our hearts to Him in total dependence.
       
  • Adding a new rhythm
    • Maybe you can't fast for health reasons, or maybe you'd rather add something healthy into your rhythms. Lent is a great time to do that! You could incorporate a time to pray for specific things, you could begin meeting with the Lord every morning, you could start getting coffee with your neighbor once a week, or any other discipline that could draw you closer to the Lord. Maybe health has been a constant battle for you, so adding expertise to your schedule could be an opportunity to spend 30 minutes on the treadmill committing to pray. You could even incorporate your little ones into these rhythms - add a family Bible study before dinner, a morning praise time in the carpool line, or an afternoon rest together to pause and thank Jesus for one another.
       
  • Prayer
    • We believe prayer is a necessity to the believer in every season - but what if you use this season of Lent to really lean into the Lord and pray like never before? What if you created a habit in these next forty days that changed the way you come to the Lord in prayer - and it stuck for the rest of your life? What if you spent time before the Lord in the quiet moments of your day before everyone else is awake, and prayed like your life depended on it?
       
  • Praise
    • This could be a time you spend every day praising God for specific things, for unique provisions, or for the general goodness you've seen throughout your day by His grace. Praise God together as a family over breakfast, with your husband over dessert once the kids are asleep, or with a friend on your lunch break. Praise Him out loud, in your heart, in the car, while you do the dishes, and as you shop for groceries. Let this season be marked by praise and watch how He shifts your attitude toward noticing every little blessing!
       
  • Worshipping in Community
    • This could be a time of corporate worship through your church that you join tomorrow for Ash Wednesday or during the weeks leading up to Easter. Maybe you gather a few friends together and spend time singing your favorite praise songs and praying together. Or maybe this is you and your kids - for twenty minutes in the afternoon - singing your heart out to your favorite worship songs and painting together as you think about the creativity of God. Get friends together to study the Bible. Pull your husband aside and praise God together in your conversation. But let this season be a time of true worship - where we pause long enough to bring Him glory and take time to focus on the gift of grace we've been given.

This season may look different for each of us, and that's okay. Whatever the next few weeks hold for you, let's take time to pause and prayerfully consider how we can worship God during this time. This rhythm of rest is something that we can incorporate throughout the year - but as this 40-day season of Lent begins, I don't want to miss a single opportunity to draw near to the Lord!

pausing and praising,

rachael