(This blog was first published in March 2019)
Many of my dear sisters and brothers in Christ will be receiving ashes on their foreheads today. As a non-denominational pastor, I’d like to share a few thoughts about Ash Wednesday means to me.
I was born to Roman Catholic parents. They faithfully went to Mass each Sunday, dragging my brother and me along with them. They also hit all the Holy Days of Obligation with us in tow. That meant that we got ashes on our foreheads every year at the beginning of Lent. At the time, all I cared about was that this was bringing us closer to Easter and a basket filled with yummy treats.
As I got a little older, I listened to the readings at these gatherings, again without any real impact on my life. As soon as I was old enough to decide whether I wanted to continue down my parent’s path of religious belief, I opted out.
Many years later life-changing things happened to me, and I found myself back in a church. This time it was Lutheran. These good folks also had a special midweek gathering at the beginning of the Lenten season where they, too, had ashes put on their foreheads.
By this time, thankfully, I knew more about the reasons behind this, which gave me a better appreciation of the symbolism. My faith journey continued and my family and I landed in a non-denominational church. I was, and am, still deeply moved by this approach. When church life here is lived in the proper light, this church answers to God and not the traditions of men. Therefore, I found no Ash Wednesday celebrations among these good people.
More time has passed, and I am now an ordained pastor of a non-denominational ministry. What may be surprising to some is that I will be assisting at an Ash Wednesday service at a Lutheran Church this evening. How did this come about, you might be asking?
My wife and I have been blessed to become friends with the Pastor of the local Lutheran Church. She is a dynamic person of God, whose devotion to the Word, to prayer, and to others is inspiring. We met at an ecumenical gathering of local pastors who get together every Saturday morning at 7 to pray for revival in our area.
Pastor Wheatley has invited Betsy and me to participate at this evening’s service at her church: Betsy will lead us in song and I will help distribute ashes. This is what got me thinking about this topic today. Why me? And why ashes?
Non-denominational or not, I have concluded that the receiving of ashes on this day is a very good thing to do. The ashes themselves symbolize three things: our sinfulness, our mortality, and the hope we have in God through the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The first two of these of go together; the bible teaches (and my life proves) that all people are hopelessly lost in sin. Only God, in His mercy, can save us from eternal doom. The ashes remind me of this fact today. They also serve to refresh my memory about my own mortality; that no matter how good I feel physically today, at age 59, I am still much closer to the end of my natural life than I am to its beginning. When this sobering thought is taken with the first point made, I am ever so glad for the third one!
The ashes, placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross, are a visual reminder of the reality of the love of God for us all. Jesus, God’s Son, chose to die an awful death on a cross in order that sinners (that’s all of us) could be saved. Peter expressed it this way: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
I can’t save myself, and no other human can do it for me either. Only faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can. The ashes on my forehead remind me of this awesome truth again today. I’ll gladly hand them out and humbly receive them. The only title I bear today is follower of Christ, for it is the only one that truly matters.
Be blessed and be a blessing,