Well, it marks the beginning of Lent - the 40 days of preparation leading up to Easter.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Ash Wednesday. Or Lent for that matter. Like most free-church traditions, my evangelical-Mennonite church background stayed away from liturgical practices. We didn’t get caught up in that “ritual stuff” (which is usually code for "we just think our rituals are cooler than your rituals").
But that’s changing, for me personally, but also in the broader evangelical culture. Many Christians - and not just “liturgical” ones - are realizing the value in assigning seasons to the biblical narrative in our Christian lives. I’ve already written a bit about that in regard to the Christian Seasons Calendar.
Ash Wednesday, then, is an important day in the Christian calendar. It’s a day when Christians gather to mark their foreheads with ashes in the symbol of the cross, to begin the observance of Lent. The ash marks one’s identification with Christ’s journey to the cross - “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). In a sense, it’s a symbolizing mark of our ongoing repentance - our turning towards Jesus. And repentance, we must remember, is all about allegiance - making Jesus Lord and following in the steps of our King. Ash Wednesday starts our journey - Lent - identifying with Jesus' journey.
The 40 days of Lent, then, extend the imagery of the ashes (repentance) into a time of devotion to what it means to align oneself (individual) and ourselves (communal) with the way of Jesus. Repentance - the symbol of Ash Wednesday - is not a one time thing. Repentance is the dynamic decision to live a life in participation with Jesus wherever that journey leads.
I share again a prayer for Lent from Henri Nouwen I first shared five years ago:
How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?
Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess.... I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen."
(A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee)