“For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears” Psalm 102:9
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Matthew 11:21
Today is what is traditionally known as Ash Wednesday in the Christian church calendar. It initiates the forty-day season of Lent that precedes Easter. There are several symbols and practices associated with this day and time, which at the very least call attention to the need for humility and repentance for those who desire to follow Jesus. One of those symbols is ash and thus this day is described as Ash Wednesday. Ashes in the Bible are often associated with the sacrifice and mourning for sin. For one to put on sackcloth and ashes meant that they were in mourning for their humble situation, condition, and grieving the helplessness and loss of life experienced.
Ash Wednesday provides an opportunity to recognize one’s broken, helpless and sinful condition before God and appeal to His great love and mercy. It is the time to repent and turn away from the broken ways of this world and our own selfishness, and turn toward the love and grace of God demonstrated in Jesus. It is a time to recognize the insanity of our own ways and agendas and realize that Jesus provides a better way to live and become a life-giver, rather than a life-taker.
It is also a time to cling to Jesus as He walks humbly and vulnerably into the suffering and desolation of humanity. He doesn’t run from the danger, nor avoid the pain, but prayerfully embraces and carries the pain of the world all the way to the threshold of death, and then He actually crosses that threshold of death and opens the doorway to the new life of God’s eternal kingdom. He sacrificially gives Himself for the sake of humanity for He knows that it is the way to salvation. He knows that all the suffering and sin must be fully dealt with by His great sacrificial love, obedience and death. He has made clear on His journey that death must precede the new life He offers. Those who want to embrace this new life of Jesus must die to themselves and the old way of life in this world.
So Ash Wednesday reminds us that we, like Jesus, are on a journey toward something better, the new life of the resurrected Christ. But to get there we must walk with Jesus through the suffering and death associated with this world. We must lay down one kind of life to receive the better kind of life Jesus offers.
I find that this is not easy to do. I want to hold on to the old life. It is a life I have grown accustomed to, understand to some degree, and have grown extremely comfortable navigating. But, no matter how much I try, the comforts and satisfaction I find in this world never lasts very long and they have far too many hidden costs. In the end I am left empty and dissatisfied. My deepest hungers remain unsatisfied and I too often try to find relief in things that have an extremely limited shelf life.
In this season of Lent we practice letting go of our illusions and fantasies regarding this life and embracing the way of Jesus, no matter where it leads, knowing that ultimately His destination is the best. We have an opportunity to pause and practice things that push into our perceived and illusory comfort. We have the opportunity to practice opening our hands, releasing our grip on the old ways of life associated with this world, and receiving the way and life Jesus offers to us. But, until we let go and open our hands it will be difficult to receive anything.
Jesus shares that in repentance we are not turning toward one who seeks to condemn and destroy us, but to the one who seeks to perform the miracle we truly need. To receive the miracle of life we must open our hands and loosen our grip on the illusions of satisfaction, security, power, wealth, and ultimately of the life promoted in this world.
In this season I encourage you to take the opportunity to practice loosening your grip and opening your hands. Whatever you are holding on to for security in this world will not suffice in the world to come. Loosen your grip on this world and cling instead to Jesus on this journey. Though there is danger ahead He accompanies you in love and He promises there is a new and better life to come for those who follow Him.