Ash Wednesday Changed My Life

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This week we will enter the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, which is a day on the church calendar that has a deep significance in my life. I first experienced the spiritual practice of Ash Wednesday in 2007 when I was writing a paper for a college class. I knew historically that some churches spread ashes on people’s foreheads and that many gave up items or foods for Lent, but this seemingly trite declaration was the extent of my knowledge. However, in 2007 at an Episcopal Ash Wednesday service in Waco, Texas, this spiritual practice changed my life. The receiving of ashes was a reminder of my mortality and a symbol of sorrow, which was an expression of faith that I, at that time, thought was not allowed in Christianity. In my experience, Christians always had to be joyful or at least pretend to be. In the Old Testament, ashes were typically used for two purposes: a sign of humility and mortality or a sign of sorrow and repentance of sin. The spiritual practice of Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent— a 40-day season of reflection and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday prepares me for this season of repentance and reflection on Christ's suffering. Ash Wednesday also causes me to consider how I am called to take up my cross during this time so that I may serve my neighbors in love.

Jesus said, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.” On Ash Wednesday, we gather as the global Christian community to remember that “we are dust and to dust, we will return” and that our bodies are temporal and will go the way of the earth. The spiritual practice of having ashes placed on one’s forehead may seem to be only an outer manifestation of an inner spiritual experience. However, it is intended to transform our lives within our local and global communities. Ash Wednesday invites us to let go of our life, and the unimportant things serve as distractions so that we may become better servants of our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends. The spiritual practice of Ash Wednesday can engage life's crises because it prompts us to realize both our individual humanity as well as our shared humanity— created in the image of God. Ash Wednesday orients us to the silence and stillness of the breath that we have all been given by our Creator. This practice reminds us every year that the mission of Jesus in Luke 4 comes after his time in the desert, and that we must also enter into this season of wandering in the wilderness. As followers of Jesus, may we live intensely into this reality. As God led Jesus into the desert for 40 days, let us begin this desert journey with Ash Wednesday so that, like Jesus, we may emerge and announce “good news to the poor."