March 9, 2011
Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, I went with a friend to a small, inner-city Anglican church that marks the beginning of Lent with the simple ceremony of receiving ashes on the forehead, in the mark of a cross. I've been observing Ash Wednesday in the same way ever since.
I grew up in a Southern, protestant tradition whose congregants never burned Palm Sunday's fronds for Lent's ashes, and so that first Lenten experience was, for me, new and a little unfamiliar. The content of the homily was not, though: it resonated with the images and phrases of thousands of cumulative "sin and Savior" sermons heard since childhood.
The subject was repentance.
It's an uncommon word, really, and not at all popular these days. Repentance simply means to recognize the wrong in something you've done, and to be truly sorry about it - so sorry, in fact, that you deliberately change your ways or habits to avoid doing it again.
"I repent" is a mea culpa with legs - and without excuse. And it recognizes that the solution for sin is not my intent to do better, or a renewed vigilance in rule-keeping, but the ever-fresh supply of forgiveness and grace available to me in Christ Jesus. The ashes, the sorrow, are on me. But the forgiveness and the grace that my cross-shaped smudge signifies are utterly, completely on Him.
My invitation from my holy and wholly good God is to repent. His forbearing nature is to forgive, based entirely on an ancient payment made in time and history, but good for all eternity. What an odd exchange!
Years ago, the pastor of my parents' church sat in our suburban living room and explained to me God's plan for saving repentant sinners. I got it, but I was still only eight. When he asked if I had any questions, I had just one. I wanted to know if Jesus' sacrifice on my behalf was good for every sin I'd committed up to now, and every one I'd commit in the days to come. (Even then I realized I had far more potential as a sinner than I did history.) He assured me that it was so. I told him I was in.
Later today, when the officiant's ash-inked thumb brushes across, then down my forehead in two quick strokes I will remember that assurance again. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," I will hear. And like I've done so many times in the years since that summer evening decades ago, I will confess in my heart "I repent." I expect I'll be confessing it until the day that I die, followed always by a deep sigh of thankfulness, and an unbidden surge of joy.
I could keep trying, of course, to justify my sins to God, and camoflauge them from others. But if I succeeded (which I wouldn't) it would mean no gain for me. Because repentance - saying I was wrong, that I'm sick about it, and that I need supernatural help to not err in that same way again - is the very invitation He is waiting for. By the power of the cross, Wednesday's ashes will become Thursday's grace when I say the words "I repent," and mean them.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust. (Psalm 103: 10-12, 14)