Ash Wednesday always makes me a little uncomfortable. As my husband says, it’s one of the few times in the church year where you really get socked with the Law. As the beginning of the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a time to really remember why it is that Jesus had to suffer and die for our sins in the first place. It’s easy for Christians to say “Jesus died for my sins,” but it’s difficult to realize how sinful we are, and how much we needed Jesus to die for our sins. I know that for me personally, I am much quicker to recognize and point out faults in other persons that I am to be willing to acknowledge my own personal faults.
It’s also a bit guilt-inducing when you choose to go up to the front of church and have the pastor make the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Oof-da! Talk about the Law almost literally smacking you in the face! I always get jitters in my belly every time Ash Wednesday comes around, and I’m grateful that the imposition of ashes comes near the beginning of the service rather than the end; I feel better once the moment is over.
But for all that the Law is emphasized on Ash Wednesday, it’s never devoid of the Gospel. In fact, it’s that Gospel following on the heels of the Law that makes the Gospel so sweet. Once you realize how truly, utterly sinful you are, only then can you really appreciate what a beautiful, amazing gift the Gospel is. When you get to the point where you’re something akin to the tax collecter in St. Matthew’s parable, hanging your head down and saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (or, as my pastor put it tonight, the Greek is better translated “Have mercy on me, THE sinner,”) and not comparing yourself to anyone else — when you finally get to that low, low point, that’s where the Gospel comes in and says that God has done it all for you. There’s nothing that we need to do. God has done it all for us. What a huge relief! What a burden lifted off! What a motivation to live your life for that God!
So, I have a love/hate relationship with Ash Wednesday. I like to think that I’m not too bad, especially compared to other people, but Ash Wednesday, with it’s visceral reminder that I, too, will die due to my sinfulness and will return to dust someday, knocks all that pride down. I’m nothing on my own, and everything that I am and every good hope I have for the future is all due to the undeserved love of God for me, a poor miserable sinner. That makes the Gospel awfully sweet.
The critisicm has been made of Lutherans that they spend too much time feeling guilty. “Too much” of anything is always a subjective measure, but I do know this: Only when you realize how guilty you really are can you truly recognize how much you need a Savior. And only when you realize how much you need a Savior can you appreciate how precious it is to have that Savior in Jesus Christ. And only when you appreciate how much that Savior Jesus has done for you can you have any reason to live your life for Christ.
I’m reading the book Christless Christianity by Michael Horton right now, and it’s disturbing and saddening to realize how much of the Christian world today ignores sin. Sin makes us uncomfortable, sin makes us feel guilty, and sin doesn’t bring people into churches. But, only when we rightly recongize how sin-full we are can we even begin to appreciate and marvel at the amazing grace of Jesus. A church without sin and grace – Law and Gospel – at its core isn’t really a Christian church at all.
Tonight, as I go into the bathroom to wash the cross off my forehead, it will, as always, remind me of how my sins are washed away in Jesus. Once again, the uncomfortable-ness of getting that cross put on my forehead leads me to a deeper appreciation of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross so long ago. And, having been reminded of what I really am, I gain a deeper appreciate what God has done for me. Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely!), it seems that the older I get, the more sinful I realize I am, and the more I recognize my need for that Savior of mine.
Ash Wednesday – I always dread it a bit, but I feel so much better for having experienced it. What an amazing God I have – and you do, too!