For me and many other Christians, this is the first week of Lent, so I found myself marking Ash Wednesday with quiet reflection in a large 16th-century church in Sweden. Alana and I were travelling for academic reasons, and the day’s schedule did not allow me to get to an actual service for the beginning of Lent; instead, I went to a downtown church which keeps its doors open during normal work hours, so people can stop inside to pray or meditate.
Ash Wednesday has not always been a part of my spiritual life. If I remember correctly, the church I attended noted the Sundays in Lent as part of preparing for Easter, but Ash Wednesday would have been lumped together with the ways Roman Catholics observe the season which, as far as we knew, was basically about giving up something good like chocolate as a path of self-discipline. Besides, the idea of being marked with a paste of ashes to remind you of your sinfulness and mortality did not seem like a good, rational Protestant practice. However, when I went to theological college, my very Presbyterian college had Ash Wednesday services which included the imposition of ashes. I found the spirituality of the service incredibly meaningful, and Ash Wednesday observance became an important part of my process of fleshing out my understanding of the Christian liturgical year.
After I was ordained, I introduced Ash Wednesday services to the congregation which I served. (Though to get people to accept the idea, Ash Wednesday observance had to come early and be combined with a pancake supper on Shrove Tuesday, so that a short service concluded the supper. I know this horrified some of the Anglicans/Episcopalians to whom I told this story, but it worked for that group of Presbyterians in making the transition.) In Scotland as a postgraduate student, I learned that the Church of Scotland has not got around to getting back to Ash Wednesday yet, so I ended up going to Episcopal or Catholic churches.
I find that Ash Wednesday helpfully sets the tone for Lent, reminding Christians that the season is no simple prelude to Easter but a complex time for journeying through a wilderness of the spirit. Not only does Lent point to confession and the need to seek forgiveness, but also to human creatureliness, to reflection upon what it means to be human as one tries to follow Jesus. You cannot really have Easter without Lent; at least, a Lent-less Easter brings real peril: Easter’s resurrection joy stands just a slight shade away from an exclusivist triumphalism, from a celebration not of hope’s surprising persistence but of some belief in the church’s power over all the world, a belief that brings danger to others in its wake. Ash Wednesday, with its haunting proclamation of ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, attempts to keep all that comes after, the forty days of Lent and the Sundays interspersed among them and even the following great fifty days of Easter, in a context of justice and a mission of serving people in need. Ash Wednesday symbolically inaugurates a wilderness pilgrimage in which churches are forever engaged.
For me, personally, the first day of Lent has gained even more significance over the last few years. Since Alana and I got together, I have increasingly reflected on what it means that I cannot share the most important holy days of my spiritual life with her, at least not in any simple way. Ash Wednesday’s reminder of my humanity, the wilderness, and dependence on God also demands that I wrestle with how I can be committed both to my religion and to my partner. Ash Wednesday asks me to walk the difficult steps of knowing that things will never be simple, and to have faith that the difficulty is worth it.