The beauty of Ash Wednesday (and Lent)

It doesn’t make for commercialized holidays or greeting cards, but it does offer the hope of transformation.

By Jeff Harris

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the year. I realize this may sound odd, as I usually prefer feast days to fast days (feel free to insert joke about Baptist preachers and fried chicken here). The beauty of a “moveable fast” is that Hallmark cards and mainstream American culture have yet to exploit Ash Wednesday (or Lent or Good Friday). While feast days like Christmas and Easter are leveraged for profits, no one has managed to capitalize on these penitential holy days. Forty days in the wilderness is apparently not lucrative.

But according to God’s economy, losing one’s life is the only way to gain true life. Perhaps paradox doesn’t communicate well in a greeting card. Or maybe the hard work of repentance is lost on those desiring cheap grace. Richard Rohr explains it this way: “The human ego prefers just about anything to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.”

The rose-colored glasses of ego prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are. We divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” And, of course, we are always the good guys. Because we are good, and because there is plenty of bad out in the world, the work of good guys is mainly external. The problems to be addressed and solved are always “out there” instead of “in here.”

Ashes on the forehead, however, confront you with the possibility that the real problems to be addressed and solved are located within us. Dividing the world into good guys and bad guys is too simplistic. Instead, each one of us is a human being capable of great goodness and horrendous evil.

“You are dust and to dust you shall return,” reminds us of our frailty, and our culpability in the brokenness of this world. While such poignancy does not make for commercialized holidays or greeting cards, it does offer the hope of transformation. Barbara Brown Taylor explains: “Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist that nothing is broken, and there is no hope of transformation for a world whose inhabitants accept that it is sadly but irreversibly wrecked.”

The tone of Ash Wednesday (and Lent) can seem archaic and puritanical, but it’s not. Transformation is the goal, not asceticism. Don’t be afraid to look into the mirror and see the truth about yourself, because the truth is, we are all in the same boat. No one is beyond redemption, or above it.

This season of repentance and reflection is a gracious gift. In the midst of our busyness, here is an opportunity to revaluate our lives and the world around us, to take stock of what matters and what doesn’t. Here is a chance to be transformed. Don’t let it slip away.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.