Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday Reflections

The following article was written by my wife, Emily Strey, and was published several years ago in Forward in Christ, the official magazine for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Emily’s article is meant to reflect the experience of Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes through the perspective of a worshiper in the pew. Whatever your parish’s practice and personal preference may be, I hope that this article helps to establish a devotional tone on your celebration today as we reflect on the reality of sin’s magnitude and on the greater reality of Christ’s magnificent grace and mercy that has rescued and redeemed us. God bless your Ash Wednesday celebration!

Of all the occasions in the church year, Ash Wednesday is the one I like the least. In fact, I dread it.

lent-2010-_11You see, my pastor uses the imposition of ashes at our church. It is Ash Wednesday, after all. At the specified time, members of our congregation walk forward. The pastor dips his finger into a small bowl of ashes, uses those ashes to make the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead, and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That makes me uncomfortable.

“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner”

Perhaps more so than any other day in the church year, on Ash Wednesday, I know that I’m going to be made aware of my sin. Don’t get me wrong; I am always aware of my sin, but in day-to-day life, it’s easy to push it aside. I make excuses. “I slipped up.” “I’m just tired.” “I’ll try harder next time.” “I could be worse.” “It’s not that big a deal.”

But on Ash Wednesday, there are no excuses. There’s nowhere to hide. We’re all equal. All of us, sitting calmly in the pews, have a feeling that is more than a bit uneasy on the inside. We know this occasion marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross, and we know that it is our sins that put him there. 

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The pastor repeats this phrase again and again, as people step forward. Old and young. Men, women, and children. Yes, even children. For we all are sinners.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death awaits them. Death awaits me. The wages of sin is death, and I am a sinner. I know that more than anyone else. Even those closest to me do not know the depth of the wickedness in my heart. But I do. And so does God.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The phrase continues, like the tolling of a bell, like a funeral march, until it is my turn. Somehow I have come to the front of the line. Somehow I have chosen to come forward, even though everything inside of me pleads to sit back down where it is safe and where no one will look at me—where I can avoid the thought of my sin and my death.

I stand in front of the pastor, and he says the same phrase to me: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

He smears two lines on my forehead with the finger he has dipped in the small bowl of ashes. I turn away, slink back to my seat, and pray the only prayer I can think to say: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

“Because I live, you also will live”

But the pastor has not randomly smeared those ashes on my forehead. They are in a shape. They are in the shape of the cross. In the midst of ashes, a cross. I can’t see the cross on my own forehead, of course. But I can see the cross on the foreheads of those around me. Later, after the service, when I return to my home, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I see that I too have a cross on my forehead. Ashes in the shape of a cross.

The symbolism speaks loudly, unmistakably. Though my body will someday become nothing more than a heap of ash, a pile of matter, a dash of dirt in a dirt-filled world, it is the cross that has saved me. Jesus the Christ, the Savior promised from the beginning of time, came into the world. He too took on a body, a body that felt pain and sadness just like mine, but despite that body he committed no sin. He did not fail like I have failed. He never failed, never sinned.

And then, then he did the unimaginable. He willingly took on the consequences for my sin. No sin of his, all sin of mine. He bore my burden of guilt and shame and regret—oh, the regret!—and he bore it all the way to the cross. The wages of sin is death, and so he died. For me.

But he didn’t stay dead. His body never returned to ashes or dust like mine will, for he was stronger than death. Death couldn’t hold him. He came back to life, having defeated death once and for all. Alive once again and forever, he ascended to heaven, triumphant and victorious. And he left behind promises: “Because I live, you also will live” (Jn 14:19). “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Ro 8:28). “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Re 2:10).

Meanwhile, here on earth, I wait. I struggle with sin. The good that I want to do, that I don’t do; but the evil I don’t want to do, that I keep on doing. Every day is a battle. I lay myself down to sleep, bruised, bleeding, and broken.

But despite all of that, his promises are still there, as sure as ever. Though I look at myself and see only my sin, when I look to Christ, I see only my Savior. I strive to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. Ashes are not the end. There is hope in the cross. Sure hope. Sure hope that one day, I too shall triumph over death. Sure hope that I shall leave behind my sin-filled desires forever. Sure hope that I shall arrive safely in heaven, where I will see my Savior face-to-face, in his ashless body. I long for that day when I shall live with him in perfect peace and happiness forever, but in my now ash-free body. I long for heaven, where there will be no more battles, no more guilt, no more regrets. I will finally live the life I was born to live, the life planned for me since before time began.

So, on this Ash Wednesday, I will once again be publicly and viscerally reminded of my sinfulness. I probably won’t like it any more than I did last year. But I will remember that those ashes are in the shape of a cross and nothing can take that cross away from me. I will eventually wash the cross-shaped ashes off my forehead, but nothing can erase the cross imprinted forever on my soul.

Forward in Christ; Volume 99, Number 2; February 2012




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