Why An Ash Wednesday Service?

“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 (ESV)

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You don’t need to observe Ash Wednesday. This isn’t a command. There is no rule for it. In fact, as far as Church traditions go, it is a fairly late development– and by late I mean around the 8th century.

But ashes have long been a symbolic part of YHWH worship.

  • There were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30).
  • They were also an act of repentance and turning toward God’s face. Daniel says that he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21).

As with all spiritual practices, the practices themselves are not the point; the practices point to Jesus.

So, how does– or, rather, how can– Ash Wednesday, point us to Jesus?

Let it be an act of humility. Make yourself low before the Lord Almighty, the One who formed us from the dust.

Let it be a confession of mortality. The psalmist urges us to “number our days”, to remember that we have limits, that we are finite, that we shall one day return to the dust (Ps. 90:3, 12). Kneel before the “Lord our God our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).

Let it be a time to repent. We do not confess our sins to make God gracious; we confess because we have found that God is gracious. We turn away from self-reliance and self-destruction, and we turn toward the God whose nail-pierced hands are ever and always open to us. Repentance is not about shaming us; it’s about making us whole.

Let it be a time to receive God’s grace. When we humble ourselves, we find we are met by God’s grace (James 4:6).

So, no, you don’t have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church– for the past 1200 years– and with the people of God– for thousands of years before that!– and humbly repent and seek God’s face.

It is the beginnig of a fast season, Lent. Lent– like every other season of the Church Calendar– is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.

This an invitation. Spiritual habits like marking time by the Church Calendar can be a habitation for the Spirit, a way to make room for His work in us and in our churches. It is, as Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words, a way to “keep company” with Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30).

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If you live in Colorado Springs, and would like to join us for New Life Downtown’s Ash Wednesday service, here are the details (The Pinery at the Hill is at 775 West Bijou Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80905):

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Those Whose Best Life Isn’t Now

To mourn is to protest. It is to say that this should not be. 

We mourn when we lose a friend in a car accident. We mourn when we lose a child in pregnancy. We mourn when an earthquake collapses buildings upon untold hundreds of lives we never knew. We mourn when a husband walks out his wife and children. We mourn when a son turns away from his mother and father. We mourn when an economy that enables greed leads powerful people to exploit the powerless. We mourn when disease destroys a life in its prime, when an addiction takes down a life that had so much promise. These and more are occasions when we mourn, when we protest, when from the depths of soul we cry out, “This is not supposed to happen!”

And we’re right. To mourn is to protest. And to protest is to give witness to a better reality. It is a sign in our souls that we are in on God’s secret: all is not as God intends. This isn’t quite the world God made. All is not the way it should be. Sin is at work. Evil has infected the cosmos. Just as Israel was kicked out of the promise land because of their rebellion against Yahweh, the whole universe is in exile because of humanity’s rebellion against Creator-God in the garden. And as Israel mourned so the whole world mourns, lamenting the brokenness. In mourning, we protest the infection of evil, crying out that this is not how it should be. And in protesting, we give witness to a better reality, an unfallen creation. Perhaps there is a faint memory of Eden in our hearts. We have been wandering in exile for so long it’s hard to know.

We can see and taste and feel the evidence of a good creation infected by evil. But what of God? What does He think? Here things take a surprising twist. God is not watching from a distance, waiting to make the earth dissolve like snow and start over. We know that God, right from the Garden of Eden, began looking for Adam after his rebellion. God in the garden was working within His newly fallen creation. God in the garden. God the Gardener

Then, in the fullness of time, God became flesh. Jesus entered our suffering, joined in our mourning, and continued working from within His fallen creation. One of the stories He told was of a tree that had yet to bear fruit and was about to be cut down. But the gardener told the master not to cut it down yet. “Let me surround it with manure and work with it for another year,” the gardener said. Always patient. Always working. God the gardener.

Toward the end of Jesus’ time on earth, God was in a garden again, agonizingly at work within His fallen creation. Jesus, praying, surrendering, blood dripping from His forehead under the weight of what He was about to do. Jesus, at the cross, took the full weight of evil on Himself. He drank the poison that had infected the universe. Like the scene from The Count of Monte Cristo, it was as if on the cross, Jesus said, “Do your worst, and when you are done, I will do mine.” And He did. He rose from the grave, conquering death and hell, signifying that death would not reign forever. Jesus was more than the Messiah who brought comfort to a mourning Israel, suffering in prolonged exile. He was the one who rescued all creation from exile. By rising from the grave, Jesus announced to the world that it would not always be this way. As Paul explained to the Corinthian church, because Christ has been raised from the dead “He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.”  (1 Cor. 15:20 NLT) God in the garden, sowed the seed of His life for a harvest of new creation.

Shortly after Jesus had risen, Mary Magdelene wept at the empty tomb thinking His body had been taken away. Jesus stood before her but she mistook Him for a gardener. Not a bad mistake. The Gardner is at work in His garden, and the garden itself longs for the work to be complete:

“For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.  Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,  the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.  For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Rom. 8:19-22, NLT)

By taking the full weight of humanity’s rebellion and the full force of evil, Jesus entered our mourning and defeated evil at its root. He sowed His life and rose again as the first fruit of a coming harvest, a day when heaven and earth will be made new. The cross was a decisive moment of victory over evil; the resurrection a sign of what is to come. God the Gardener is at work within the garden of His fallen creation, working to rescue and redeem. 

But sometimes all we see is manure…

You are blessed not for your mourning but for the comfort that is coming. You are not lucky for your tears but for the laughter that is coming.

So. In a world of suffering and pain, we mourn. But in the midst of our mourning, we realize that God mourns with us, and we remember that Jesus has triumphed over evil and so death will one day end. Moreover we carry this hope to others who mourn. We "comfort those in trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Cor. 1:4). Jesus the Messiah carries a comfort deeper than anything we have ever known. We who were mourning are lucky, for this comfort has come to us. Now we who have received this comfort carry it to those who mourn.

 [This is an excerpt from "Lucky: How the Kingdom Comes to Unlikely People", which just released on March 1, 2011. This is taken from Chapter 5, "Those Whose Best Life Isn't Now."]

Purchase LUCKY.

 Copyright Glenn Packiam. All rights reserved.