Growing up I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. It wasn't a day we observed in the tradition I grew up in, in fact it wasn't really observed in the tradition (United Methodism) I am now part of until the late 60's an even later in some area's. It's often seen as a Catholic thing and rightfully so, the Catholic church has been observing Ash Wednesday since about 960. Prior to that there is no record of ashes used in a liturgy for Lent or anytime for that matter. It was however used in what was called the "Order of Penitence." Penitence were those who had committed grave sins against the church and who were no longer admitted into full communion with the church. They were treated like "catechumens", or people who had not yet been baptized. The penitent received ashes on his head and was asked to complete a certain religious devotion for a definitive amount of time. At the end of that period he was prayed for by the bishop, after confessing his sins, received absolution, washed the ashes from his head and was reconciled to the community of faith. The reason for all this? It was thought that if an already baptized Christian committed a serious sin than they were not truly converted and therefore needed to endure a sort of second catechism and 2nd baptism, i.e the period of preparation and washing.
The truth is Ash Wednesday really isn't that meaningful, or at least it's meaningful in a different way now. To us ash Wednesday signifies the start of the Lenten fast, which not many of use really participate in that diligently. Fasting is an important Christian discipline, but doesn't hold the weight it once did, in fact it holds more. Meaning that most Americans, including myself are 22lbs over weight. Missing a few meals or eating less isn't sacrifice, it's making a choice to live longer for most of us. And as Protestants we don't have Penitence as a Sacrament or absolution or confession booths. Yes it's good to confess your sins to one another and yes it's good to hear that "you're forgiven", but it's not about confessing to a priest or receiving absolution from a bishop or doing extra good so your extra bad sin can be forgiven. It's about faith and mortality
Mortality is really what we are facing and dealing with during Lent as well as how our faith reconciles us to that mortality in a hope filled way. In our Passage St. Paul gives the Corinthians a litany of very bad things that has happened to him and his Apostolic colleagues. Inflictions, calamities, beating, imprisonments, riots, sleeplessness and hunger are all ways that they have suffered. After listing all these terrible things that you and I most likely have not endured, at least not all of them at once, he gives away as to how they were able to endure. He says that it was "by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;" All these things are gifts of Faith. Paul goes on to make clear that for as many things that where against them there was more things for them. These where all conditions of mortality. They are ways that we see that we are not invincible, that we struggle and suffer. Maybe you have been in prison, maybe you have been hungry, maybe you survived daily beatings from your husband, mother of father and through it all you realized just how vulnerable you are and just how fragile life is. The good news is; life is hard, God is good, he knows your suffering and in response to all your suffering is faith, faith that God is for you. This Ash Wednesday I want you to consider this; we cover ourselves in ash not to repent, not to morn, not to be-forgiven or to prepare ourselves for some culturally meaningless fast, but to acknowledge or common struggle and to admit to our mortality.
Theres an ancient story about a mystical bird called the Phoenix. It is a bird that lives and then dies, but it does not remain dead. Out of the death comes life. The Phoenix is consumed by flames upon it's death, but out of the ashes comes a new Phoenix. The Phoenix was adopted as one of the symbols of early Christianity because out of the ashes of mortality and death comes the new eternal life in christ. This Lent I invite you to take ashes, not in some old empty ritual, but in a new way acknowledging that from our mortality comes immortality in christ.