Feb 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday and the Compassion of God

The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

It was March 3, 1976. As I entered the freshman dining hall of my college, I noticed that the women who served in the cafeteria line all had peculiar black smudges on their foreheads. I thought to myself, “How bizarre!” Then it dawned on me that these women were observing Ash Wednesday. Growing up in Protestant suburbia, I had never seen such a thing before. Little did I imagine that in twenty years, not only would I be wearing a black smudge on my forehead, but also I would be imposing ashes on the foreheads of my Protestant congregation as we observed Ash Wednesday together. On the wrinkled foreheads of the elderly and the tender foreheads of babies, I would place ashes in the form of a cross and say, “From dust you have come, to dust you will return.”

You might recognize this line as a paraphrase of Genesis 3:19. When I said it to the folks in my church, I was reminding them of their neediness and frailty as human beings, not to mention their mortality. When someone tells you, “To dust you will return,” this literally means, “You will die.” Not exactly a reason to rejoice, is it?

For this reason, Ash Wednesday services are sober in tone. But this sobriety must not neglect the overarching grace of God. We were created from dust, indeed, by the loving hand of God. Our eventual return to dust does not erase this love.

For now, we begin Lent with a solemn reminder of our “dustiness,” and therefore our great need for the One who sees that we are dust and has compassion upon us. Remember, as you journey through Lent, the God who knows you completely and loves you extravagantly is always with you.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: What have been your experiences (if any) of Ash Wednesday? Do you ever think of your own mortality? How does this make you feel? How do you respond to the tender compassion of God for you?

PRAYER: Gracious God, on this Ash Wednesday, I remember that I have come from dust, and to dust I will return. I am weak, Lord, so needy of your strength and salvation. How thankful I am that, as you see my weakness and remember my dustiness, you feel compassion toward me. You do not reject me, but rather reach out to me in love. Ultimately, your care for me in my dusty sinfulness will lead you to bear my sin upon the cross. Today, let me consider just how much I need you to be my Savior. Help me use this season of the year to draw near to you, to recommit myself to you, and to ready my heart to receive the Good News that is coming. All praise be to you, compassionate, gracious, loving God. Amen.

P.S. from Mark: Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a season in the Christian year to draw near to God in a special way as we prepare our hearts for a deeper experience of the wonder of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. If you would like to learn more about Ash Wednesday and Lent, you might find helpful a couple of pieces I have written. They are available on my website: Ash Wednesday: What is Ash Wednesday? How Do We Observe It? Why Should We? and How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship with God.

As I explained in yesterday's post, throughout the season of Lent, the Daily Reflections will focus on knowing Jesus better. They have been written a talented collection of writers, my associates at Foundations for Laity Renewal. You'll be able to follow this Lenten series through the Daily Reflections. If you would like to download a PDF of the whole series, you can do so at this link.

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