Ash Wednesday is one of those occasions that seem simple enough. Its meaning seems obviously, intuitively self-evident—until, that is, you try to explain that meaning clearly and concisely. Then it becomes complex, and fuzzy around the edges, and we’re not quite as sure as we thought we were that we understand it all.
There are several layers of meaning operating at the same time in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. Part of what we’re doing, of course, is marking the beginning of the season of Lent. In a few minutes, I will invite you solemnly “to the observance of a holy Lent.” But Lent does not stand alone. It is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. It is supposed to get us ready to celebrate the Paschal Triduum—the three sacred days that connect us to the deepest realities of our lives as human beings: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.
The Easter Vigil is the watering trough of our identity as baptized Christians. It is the place to which we return time and time again for refreshment in the knowledge that we have been buried with Christ in his death that we may share with him in his resurrection. Lent originated as the “home stretch” of a long period of pre-baptismal instruction and formation, a process known as the catechumenate. Lent is therefore an appropriate time for us to develop a sense of solidarity with those who will be numbered among the saints, those whose names will be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, at the Easter Vigil this year. We do well to hold them in our prayers, and to walk with them in these final days leading up to new birth, and thereby renew our participation in our own new birth.
The mystery of Lent is therefore much larger than a narrow focus on sin and repentance. But that is certainly where the emphasis is at the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. This is the reality which the ashes that will be applied to our foreheads signifies. Sin is the 900-lb gorilla in our jungle, the elephant in the living room, and it is ridiculous to ignore it.
Sin has a cosmic dimension. It infects every corner of the created universe. We are all therefore victims of it. Those who have had their lives recently upended by flood waters in California or drought in Tanzania are certainly not victims of anyone’s particular sin, especially their own, but they are surely victims of universal sin.
Sin also has a social dimension. In social sin, the victims are individual, but the perpetrators are corporate, a collective “we.” To give a rather extreme illustration: I personally do not either use or buy or sell illegal drugs. But as a participant in a national and international economy of which drug trade is a part, some of the money that flows through my pocket has at one time or another been used to pay for illicit drugs. It’s inescapable. So when a baby is born addicted to opioids, I am part of the “we” that is responsible for that tragedy. That’s the way social sin operates. Those of us here today who trace our ancestry to Europe may not have a racist bone in our bodies, but we all benefit—we can’t help but benefit—from a society that sees whiteness as the norm and anything else as the exception to the norm. We get to go places and do things that people of color have to think twice about. We benefit from societal racism, even if we don’t behave in racist ways ourselves. You and I are both victims and perpetrators of social sin. Part of our repentance tonight is for that sort of sin.
Sin also has, of course, a very personal dimension. Each one of us is individually guilty of doing those things which we ought not to have done, and leaving undone those things which we ought to have done. And at an individual level, sin is wickedly deceptive. It’ s like the Trojan Horse, sneaking into our hearts disguised as common sense or justice or beauty or love, and then spilling its vile contents into our souls in a desperate attempt by the Evil One to draw us away from God. The frightening truth about personal sin, individual evil, is that I cannot even trust my own feelings and intuitions. They are tainted, and cannot be relied upon apart from the objective standard of God’s revealed word. What “feels right” to me may be the very face of death itself, and I need to run 180 degrees in the other direction.
Turning 180 degrees around. That takes me to the third level of meaning that is operating in today’s liturgy. Turning around is itself the very definition of repentance. When we run away from sin and evil, we find the open arms of Jesus waiting for us—Jesus, the Prince of Light and Life. Jesus, in his redeeming love, supplies us with the strength we need to persevere in our repentance. He does this through the witness of scripture, in the communal life of the church, and—most openly and gloriously—in the Mass, the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus is not merely an example or a coach or a cheerleader. He’s more than just moral support. He gives us his own self, his very life, the meat on his bones and the blood in his veins.
To receive the ashes that mark us as mortals and as sinners without also receiving the Body and Blood by which we are redeemed is to tell and hear only half the story. Before God, we stand overdrawn, bankrupt. But the miracle of gospel grace is that the creditor steps down into the place of the debtor, and pays the debt. The sacramental elements of the Eucharist are the sign and seal and actual conveyance of that payment. We have the resources necessary to the keeping of a holy Lent, and a holy life thereafter.