This statement sounds counterintuitive, but I love Ash Wednesday. “What?” you might think. “How could anyone love a day set apart for repentance?” Actually, that’s one reason that makes this day special and, in a sense, worth loving—one reason among many that this is a day to observe wholeheartedly. I love Ash Wednesday for at least three reasons.
First, Ash Wednesday interrupts our normal schedule with a piercing call for us to remember our mortality and mourn our sins. Like the shrill cacophony of an alarm clock, it wakes us up out of our spiritual slumber. There is no concealing our ungodliness on Ash Wednesday, no time for prideful pretending. No, our souls are laid bare, our self-constructed façades of righteousness shattered. On this day, in a way unlike any other, the church boldly beckons us to repent and believe the Gospel. As strange as it may sound, I love that about Ash Wednesday.
Second, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of focusing with particular clarity on the significance of the suffering and cross of Christ for our salvation. Because it reminds us of the forty days that Jesus fasted and prayed for us, Ash Wednesday is a fitting time for us to fast and pray in the way of Jesus. In an age when we usually try to avoid suffering at all costs, Ash Wednesday helps us see the redemptive value of the suffering of Jesus for us, and that profound truth casts our own inevitable suffering in a new light. I love that about Ash Wednesday as well.
Third, Ash Wednesday prepares us to celebrate more fully the joy of Easter. That, of course, is ultimately the point—for us to be drawn into the saving mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as we observe the season of self-examination and repentance that begins on this holy day. On Ash Wednesday, we recall through word and ritual, and even rejoice in, the fact that the Lord our God can bring new life out of the ashes of our brokenness. Death gives way to life, and the ashes on our foreheads bear the sign of the cross, which is the supreme symbol of God’s victory for us in the crucified and risen Christ. This, most of all, is what I love about Ash Wednesday.
These reasons and others find poetic expression in a great hymn of our faith by Claudia F. Hernaman:
Lord, who throughout these forty days
for us didst fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins
and close by thee to stay.
As thou with Satan didst contend,
and didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight,
in thee to conquer sin.
As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,
so teach us, gracious Lord,
to die to self, and chiefly live
by thy most holy word.
And through these days of penitence,
and through thy passiontide,
yea, evermore in life and death,
Jesus, with us abide.
Abide with us, that so, this life
of suffering over past,
an Easter of unending joy
we may attain at last.