Observing Ash Wednesday is a fairly new tradition to Presbyterians. Our society values new and trendy, and ashes are an incredibly ancient symbol. Our culture goes to great extremes to stave off the effects of advancing age-and death-for as long as possible. Yet, here we are, with a visible symbol that our bodies will one day crumble into dust. People may go to great lengths to avoid saying “Yes, I did wrong” in favor of “I’m a victim!” Many Christians today wear a smear of ash on our foreheads, saying before the world, “I’m a sinner and I repent.”
Someone asked me not long ago, “Do we have to wear the ashes?” Of course not. They’re a “visible sign of spiritual reality.” Whether you get them marked on your forehead or not, wear your identity in Christ.
Jesus warns us not to engage in spiritual practices to impress God, or other people. The point of our faith is that we follow him, and he leads us into a lifelong walk with his Father through the Holy Spirit. Over time, the character of the Trinity molds us and our lives. We show the meaning of the ashes, day by day, act by act of obedience and faithfulness.
Show the ashes by serving someone in need. Do it because it’s “J.W.I.”, “Jesus Wants It”, remembering that in feeding a hungry person, ministering to some other human need, or showing compassionate interest in a prisoner (or someone fresh out of prison), you are serving Jesus himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
Dedicate time to prayer. Don’t pray to impress other people, or even yourself. Pray because you hunger to spend time with God, to empty your heart and mind of anxiety and anger, and open them to the peace that only God can give.
Last year, a small group at the church I serve fasted for a day and a night on the eve of Holy Week. During the times we would ordinarily eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner we gathered for simple worship and prayer. Some of us decided to give the money we would have spent on those meals as a special offering to a local hunger ministry. Consider fasting, whether with a group or individually, as a one-time special discipline or a regular practice. Don’t do it to impress, or as a quick weight-loss secret. Explore it as a means of denying yourself something, and filling that time and space with prayer.
However you begin this Lent, may each of us “wear the ashes”–if not a smear on our foreheads–then the visible acts of discipleship that show we are different, that we belong to God and are sealed forever in Jesus Christ.
By Dr. Fred Seay
1st Presbyterian Church of Sugar Land, Texas