The low church Protestant tradition I was raised in did not follow the traditional church calendar and Lectionary. We did not observe Lent and thought those folks walking around with ash crosses on their heads on Ash Wednesday were a bit weird. I have come to believe that was my loss. Once I took the time and care to learn the history and meaning of such observances, I have come to appreciate the symbolism and devotional meaning of them.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It calls me to face soberly and sincerely my fallenness from God’s created ideal and the mortality that goes with it. I am a sinner whose best efforts are destined for the ash heap apart from God’s redeeming grace. The season of Lent calls me to confess my need for a Savior who has included me in his own death on a cross and, with His resurrection we celebrate at Easter, raised me from my “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” existence to life eternal in the kingdom of God. So, this evening when I join with Christ-followers around the world, to acknowledge my need for the Savior and sing songs of praise for the wonders of the cross of Christ and respond to the Scripture readings and prayers by accepting the application of the ashes on my forehead, I will do so with deep gratitude, free of condemnation and uplifted by the hope of the resurrection. I will not do so because I am obligated to by some religious law. I do not believe doing so will earn me any more unmerited favor (grace) than I’ve already received. It won’t make me holier. But, I will be more focused and more grateful for the cross. As the hymn writer, Isaac Watts, expressed it:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.Psalter Hymnal, 1987