February 24 – The Exhaustion of Ash Wednesday

Cross - snow

This coming Wednesday, March 1, is Ash Wednesday. We Presbyterians are late-comers to marking the day, and we still don’t do much with Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday. We sometimes join our Anglican friends for a Pancake Supper the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but are never sure exactly why we are doing so.

There is no explicit Biblical warrant for a season of penitence prior to Easter or for that season to begin with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. The lack of Biblical warrant was enough for our Reformed fathers and mothers to reject the observance of Lent, and Ash Wednesday as its beginning.

It took a long time for Presbyterians, especially those of us with a little Covenanter and Seceder blood running through our veins, to find some value in the disciplines of Lent and of Ash Wednesday, in particular.

On Wednesday, forty days, excluding Sundays, before Easter, we Presbyterians will gather for an evening Communion service in the Sanctuary.

Our Ash Wednesday service is unlike any other service during the year, save Maundy Thursday. Those who so desire will receive the ashen cross upon their foreheads as they enter. “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” the elder will say as they pause just inside the back doors of the Sanctuary.

There will be no cheery, “Good evening!” from the pulpit, no announcements about potlucks or mission trips. Instead, we will be called to survey the wondrous cross – to count our richest gain but loss and pour contempt on all our pride. We will see that cross towering o’er the wrecks of time.

There is a certain unrelentingness about our Ash Wednesday service. In our prayer of confession we will acknowledge with the Puritan Fathers:

Thou art good beyond all thought,
  But I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind;
My lips are ready to confess,
  but my heart is slow to feel,
  and my ways reluctant to amend.
I bring my soul to thee;
  break it, wound it, bend it, mould it.
Unmask to me sin’s deformity,
  that I may hate it, abhor it, flee from it.

This is not a quick pick-me-up service, a mid-week boost. It asks us to go to corners of our hearts we often avoid. It brings us face to face with the reality that we are dust and to dust we will return. This year’s reading and reflection on Isaiah 59 will offer no relief to those of us who simply want a good thought for the day.

There is no doubt that there is a gloominess, something dark and heavy, about our worship on Ash Wednesday. By design it is so. But the service ends as we are invited to that Table standing in the shadow of the cross. As we come to the meal and its gracious host, we are reminded of and fed with the reality of how deep is the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure.

We will leave the service spiritually exhausted, but somehow encouraged and ready to follow the One who “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

Our Ash Wednesday service is far from the best-attended of the year. But it is often one of the best-remembered and best-used for our spiritual good. Might you be willing to join us on Wednesday?

See you Sunday. And Wednesday.