February brings a variety of special traditions. For St. Louis Cardinals fans, we anticipate this month knowing pitchers and catchers are reporting to Spring Training in Jupiter, Florida. Romantics remember Valentine’s Day with candies and flowers. (To a historical theologian, by the way, St. Valentine’s Day is a day of intrigue; how did a Holy Feast day for Valentine of Rome who was martyred in the 4th Century become associated with roses and romantic hallmark cards?) And another significant religious day takes place in February: Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the 40-days of Lent.
In my own religious experience I’ve never been too fond of being called a sinner. Sure, I sin. Everyone does. This is the great defect with the human condition: we sin! But we don’t go around greeting one another as sinners, do we? “Hello, sinner, how are you today?” Or, “Oh, what an adorable family of sinners you are!” Yet this is exactly what we do on Ash Wednesday. We remember and reflect on those haunting words of mortality from Genesis 3:19, “…from dust you were born and to dust you will return.” These words were, of course, were spoken by God to a sinful human who had blatantly defied God’s instructions. Pastors from all Mainline Protestant denominations of Christianity use these words, along with, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” as we impose or apply ashes to the foreheads of our congregations on Ash Wednesday.
The application of ashes is a holy tradition well established in Scripture. Especially in the Old Testament, the faithful have applied ashes on their heads as an outward symbol of repentance and penance. It’s a way of letting everyone know you’re a sinner and are seeking God’s forgiveness. In fact, there are at least 25 references in Scripture to putting on ashes as a sign of repentance. Even Jesus, during his infamous “woe to you” discourse, mentions putting on ashes and sackcloth as a sign of remorse (Matthew 11:21). On Ash Wednesday, ashes are applied in the shape of a cross – a symbol of our belonging to Christ who died on the cross (and calls us to be prepared to do the same).
If you’ve never before attended an Ash Wednesday service, I encourage you to give it a try. It’s a somber and humbling experience to be called a sinner and have ashes put on your head. It links us directly to our ancient lineage of faithful Biblical characters as well as billions of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world who observe the day in like manner. It’s a good time to examine our spiritual condition; to look inside at the sin we carry and realize that we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace – a grace we simply do not deserve. It’s a day that reminds us of our mortality and the frailty of human life, reminding us that only God provides life everlasting.
I do hope you’ll join us on Ash Wednesday. Our service is at 6:00 in the evening. If you would rather attend a daytime service, there are many to choose from at a variety of churches in town. Ash Wednesday is one of those special days where denominational lines are disregarded and the entire Body of Christ joins together in reenacting one of our most ancient religious customs.
Come, you sinners, poor and needy. Come.
Rev. Rob Kirbach