Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is a period of time marked by discipline and fasting, as well as contemplating our sin, our mortality, and Christ’s death on the cross. While not a cheery season, it can and should lead us to a deeper gratitude of God’s love for us. It strengthens our understanding of the true joy, freedom, and life we have in Christ.
There are two realities of the cross that are important to hold simultaneously as we enter this season: Our utter depravity that put Jesus there, and God’s overwhelming grace to us. Holding one of those thoughts without the other will likely lead to narcissistic navel-gazing and paralyzing self-hate, or an undue pride in our position and safety.
For those of us brooding and perfectionist types, Lent can be a dangerous thing. We revel in an opportunity to scrutinize ourselves, to pick apart our many insufficiencies and heap coals on ourselves for our iniquity. That is not what Lent is for. That is us trying, again and again, to earn our salvation. It’s us attempting to prove to ourselves and to God that we know full well how sinful we are, followed by shaming ourselves until we feel we’ve been adequately sorrowful.
By the mercy of God, that’s just not how it works. We have to enter Lent understanding our absolute need for Christ’s death to save us, and hold tightly to the cross and its truths. Tightly to the finished work of Jesus Christ. Tightly to our adoption as sons and daughters of God. Tightly to the resurrection. We are safe in the arms of a Father who loves us. We really are.
It’s precisely because of our full confidence in God’s love for us that we can securely enter the season of Lent. We can look honestly at our brokenness without fear. We can contemplate our depravity and our mortality without spiraling into despair.
The reason ash is applied to our foreheads is drawn from Ezekiel 9:4 (Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it), and Genesis 3:19 (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). It is a physical reminder that we are dust. From dust we came, and to dust we will return. Lent is a time to think on that reality. But Lent points to Good Friday and Easter, just like the ashes on our forehead in the shape of his cross. So let’s enter this season humbly, ready to engage with our sinfulness and Christ’s death, but let’s always, always, keep in mind that when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” he meant it.