Ash Wednesday is a day of solemn assembly that is built right into the church year. It is a fast day, a day of mourning for our sin and the sin of all humanity before God, a recognition of our mortality save for the grace of God, and a request that the Lord remember our creation and breathe new life into our burned-out, dusty lives once more.
In many ways, Ash Wednesday corresponds to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in that it is a day of public penance and renewal by putting our sin to death for the sake of atonement. For Christians, however, this atonement comes through Jesus Christ upon whom our sin was placed, like the ancient scapegoat on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. It is Christ, not us by our own actions, who saves us from the ravages of sin, and it is upon him that our hope is placed.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time in the church calendar where we undergo a discipline that helps us become better disciples. Lent was traditionally a time set aside for catechumens to learn about the faith before their Easter baptism. Although you’ll hear people talk about giving something up for Lent, giving something up for Lent is like pruning dead branches off a plant so that energy can be directed toward new growth. Lent isn’t about dying; it’s about discipline so that new life can emerge, which sometimes means dying to what is dead (and death-dealing) in and among us so that there is room for the vigor of new life.
–From the PC(USA) website, www.pcusa.org
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
—a prayer by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero
O God, forgive me this day for my words
words of criticism, cynicism and complaint
words of distrust, doubt and distaste
words of misjudgment, prejudice and hate
O God, forgive me for my self-righteouness and my naivete
for believing that I know all the answers
have all the answers
can solve all the answers
for believing that I can do everything for everyone
for believing that I am perfect and without blame
for believing that I’m right and others are wrong
for looking for the worst in people rather than the best
for turning away from neighbor and from You.
O God, grind my sinful soul into dust and breathe new life into me this day and every day
fill me with the imagination and passion of your Spirit and the love and grace of your Son
and may it make me whole for You and Your people.
—my confessional prayer for this Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent