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.
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
This is an odd day. It’s not often in our culture that we come face-to-face with our own mortality, and it’s even less often that we choose to think about the fact that one day, in the not-so-distant future, we will once again be nothing but the dust from which we were made. To put ashes on the forehead of someone else is a powerful thing—to look into someone’s eyes and tell them they are only dust, blowing in the wind.
Yet I still greet people on this day with “Happy Ash Wednesday!” I get strange looks and confused emails and text messages, but I really think this is a great greeting. Yes, we’ve put away the pancakes. Yes, Lent is often seen as a time of deprivation and denial. Yes, we’re putting ashes on ourselves and confessing our sin and thinking about how we’re going to die. But it’s also the beginning of our yearly 40-day journey, the time when we clear out all the nonsense and the false abundance, the time when we confess so we can move forward. Without this confession, this recognition, we can’t even begin to get back on track, to start the journey home. We can’t return to the Lord with all our hearts if our hearts are full of wrong things. And so we empty them, and ourselves, to make room for the love and grace and mercy that God gives in abundance, so we can be filled to overflowing by God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.
Gracious God, may the ashes on our foreheads be a reminder not only of our mortality and our sin, but also of your incredible love for us. Help us to empty ourselves of false abundance and to return to you with our whole hearts. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.