Written by Fr. Dale Minor - Reclaim Ministry - Rutland, OH
Wednesday, February 17, 2021 is Ash Wednesday in the Church Calendar and marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a 40 day period leading up to Easter. (Actually it is 46 days, the Sundays are not counted.) Lent itself is a season of penitence, a time when the church formally acknowledges the restoration of the penitent sinner to the church, a ceremony usually including the marking of a cross in ashes on the forehead of the penitent. Many Christians perceive this as being a purely Catholic tradition and eschew any reference to it. And it is true that Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, discontinued the rite in the reformed church. Today, however, many Protestant denominations, including Lutherans, celebrate Lent and practice the rites of Ash Wednesday.
Martin Luther’s objection to Ash Wednesday and Lent were based on the fact there are no references to either in the Bible. Although, both the call to personal repentance and the practice of pouring dust and ashes over one's head as a sign of contrition are surely present. Consider Genesis 3:19 where God tells Adam, “(you shall) return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” This reminds us of our humble origins, being made from the dust of the earth, but also affirms the sentence of death as the result of the sin in our lives. Also, the use of ashes as a sign of repentance is ancient in origin as evident in the Old Testament Books of Job, Esther, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore, I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 5-6)
Even more importantly, the teaching of the necessity for repentance in the New Testament was primary in the work of John the Baptist (Mt. 3:2) and then picked up and amplified by Jesus. From the time He completed his 40 day fast in the wilderness and began his earthly ministry, this was His message. “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:17) In fact, the overriding goal of Jesus’ life and ministry is to teach that those who follow Him will enter into the Kingdom of God and spend eternity in His presence. And an integral requirement for our reaching that goal is turning from sin.
St. Paul gave testimony to this fact when facing the men of Athens, he acknowledged that these people were religious, even if misguided. He spoke of a monument they had to “an unknown God,” Paul claimed, “The one you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth,” (Acts 17:23) and in 2 Peter 3:9 it is further stated “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long-suffering toward us, not willing that any shall perish but that he shall come to repentance.” These and many other such scriptures make it clear that repentance is a requirement for a healthy relationship with Jesus, -- being needed for kingdom living.
So, what is repentance? The dictionary might say something like “to feel sorry for something done; regret.” But repentance is so much more than just regretting or feeling sorry for the way something turned out. I can be sorry for breaking my wife’s favorite vase. But that isn’t a sin; unless I did it deliberately to spite her. That would be a sin.
Repentance involves a genuine change of heart. It is reflected by a change in our words and actions; really, in who we are. Biblical repentance comes when we turn from our worldly ways and strive to be like Jesus. It is when our desire and our actions reflect who He is. When we do this, we may not need a mark of ashes to let others know we have repentant hearts. But we may need to celebrate Ash Wednesday and to receive that mark to remind us that we still have work to do. For it is true, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) It is time, whether you can make an Ash Wednesday service or not, to resolve to change the issues in your lives which are pulling you downward, toward the dust, -- it is time for a change of heart.