Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
Do you recall that catchy tune from Fiddler on the Roof? "Tradition!"
My apologies if you now have that melody stuck in your head! 😉
As good Lutherans, we know it isn’t only the Jewish faith that is rife with tradition. Our Lutheran heritage also has handed down many customs and traditions over the centuries. But if we don’t know the reason or history behind the tradition, then what good is it? For the depth and entirety of a tradition to be expressed and appreciated, we need to know why we do it.
Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition. At least our preschool students, during chapel time yesterday, certainly thought so. "Why do you have dirt on your head?" "You have an X on your forehead." "It looks like an airplane." These innocent children couldn’t quite understand why grownups would come to church to smear dirt on our heads. How would you have answered?
Did you know that Ash Wednesday has its traditions from well before the Lutheran church came into existence? This first day of the Lenten season is intended to make Christians mindful of their sins and to bring into focus the gravity of those sins and their consequences. In 1091 Pope Gregory I started the tradition of marking a cross of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as he uttered the words of Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” This custom has been passed down through generations, spreading even to many Protestant denominations. That’s right, ashes aren’t just for Catholics! This is a gifted ritual for all Christians. It is completely optional, but it also can be an edifying practice for the whole Church. This custom was reminiscent of Old Testament people of God sitting in ashes or sprinkling them on the head. In a time of great sorrow or repentance, ashes and sackcloth were outward signs of grief or repentance.
Such outward customs may indeed be “fine” (as Martin Luther puts it in his Small Catechism). However, if the custom loses meaning or if the tradition becomes the focus of worship, there is a real problem. In other words, we certainly do not put a cross of ashes on our forehead to impress our fellow Christians. It is not an outward sign for us to display, walking around to “show off” our piety or Christian humility. A cross of ashes is not for those who appear to have it all spiritually together. The very opposite is true. This dirty ashes is symptomatic of our brokenness and spiritual confusion. Much like a dog, chastised and cowering with its tail between its legs, we don the traditional mark of ashes to acknowledge that we have been caught in the act. We are guilty. We’re in trouble. We are sin-stained and iniquity-prone.
These ashes admit our fallen fate and begs for the mercy of our God.
This is why it is a tradition worth keeping!
But Ash Wednesday is not intended to be a downer, where we wallow in self-pity or hopeless grief. Sure, it begins with true repentance and somber faith, but it doesn’t end there. Ash Wednesday is less about our brokenness and more about God’s healing. The ashes may remind us momentarily of our mortality, but the message culminates in the cleansing power of the Savior. After all, the mark of ashes is not just smudged or blotted upon our foreheads randomly. They are marked in the shape of the cross. “We know that the cross-shaped ash upon our brow is a dark but vivid reminder that on the brow of the Messiah was a crown of thorns as he hung upon his cross-shaped altar of sacrifice. So, even as we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we also remember that we are Christ’s, and to the crucified Christ, we shall ever return to find him our all-sufficient atoning sacrifice for all our sins.” (Chad Bird) If you came to our church last night, you may have heard me audible from the traditional “Dust you are, dust you will be,” and instead say, “A cross of ashes for the cross of Christ.” This marking is not about us; it is about the One who came to save us. Our cross of ashes preludes and proclaims the cross of Jesus at the end of the Lenten season.
Sin is a dirty business; but this is precisely the good news of Jesus’ suffering. He removes the disgrace and damnation of sin. He finds us sitting in our sackcloth and ashes and He picks up from the ground. He reconciles and recreates us. “I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” (Jeremiah 24:7). Jesus cleanses us from sin; He makes us new. And so began yesterday, this Lenten season of prayerful meditation on our Savior’s great love and His sacrifice to take away our sins in order to reconcile us to God. The great traditions of Ash Wednesday worship prompt us to enter this holy season with true, heartfelt repentance. Regardless of whether or not we incorporated some use of ashes and fasting as outward signs of our repentance, let’s be sure we come with a heart of genuine repentance. As we do, the good news will ring beautifully in our ears. You have been rescued from the dust and ashes of death by Jesus who, by His own death, pulled you up from the dust and granted you access to His eternal kingdom. Good stuff, right? He has taken away our sackcloth and given us garments of righteousness. Then we will see and rejoice in the glory of our Savior “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14) Then God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.” (1 Samuel 2:8)
“I'm a sinner. I don't always love God as strongly as I could or as directly as I should. Ash Wednesday reminds me that it is only through God that I have life; He gave it to me. God forgives. He loves. And He gives this sinner a second chance. Put simply: my God kicks ash.” (Mark Hart)
Pastor Steve Vera