Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On the “Ash” in Ash Wednesday

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Joel 2:12-13

Why is it called “Ash Wednesday”? And why is the beginning of Lent today, 46 days before Easter, when Lent is 40 days long? I’ll answer the first question today, the second tomorrow.

But even before that, let’s look at repentance and fasting.

When I looked back over my life as I was writing Say Yes to No, I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster—instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. To frame the book properly, I began with this insight from C. S. Lewis,
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast, as long as we realize that “turning around” is the root meaning of repentance and that in Lent, we fast (give up certain pleasures or necessities like food or foods) in order to slow down and get on the right track. As a sign of repentance, the Bible speaks of using ashes. For example, in Matthew 11:20-21, Jesus calls two towns in Galilee to repent in sackcloth and ashes: 
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.  ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
So, Ash Wednesday—whether we literally use ashes or not—initiates a time of repenting of seeking to turn our life around in the places we are heading away from God so that we turn back to him.
Reflection: What might you need to repent from?

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