A Cross of Ash

By Sean Davidson, Pastor of Discipleship

Posted on February 9, 2016

Since the eleventh century, Ash Wednesday has marked the beginning of the Lenten season. It gives an opportunity to turn to God as we reflect on our fragility and the shortness of life. So we gather together and come forward to receive a cross of ash on our foreheads. And we hear the words sound out like a tolling bell, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This has to be one of the most challenging days on the Christian calendar to appreciate. What are we to make of this funeral-like ceremony? It could seem a little depressing – especially at this time of year when the days are short and often gloomy. Isn’t there a more encouraging note to sound when we’re stuck in the middle of a Canadian winter?

Of course, the goal is not to depress ourselves. That would be strange. In fact, the liturgy, readings, preaching and ancient practices of the day are actually meant to be encouraging. So what’s the encouragement here? Why would we gather to be reminded of what we would otherwise try to avoid or forget?

Let me suggest that Ash Wednesday is like those critical moments on an adventure when we have to stop to remember what we’re doing and why it matters. It can be so easy to lose perspective when we are tired or discouraged or have been fighting many battles. We might even be tempted to give up. So we pause to regroup. We pull out the map. We face up to the challenges ahead. And then, after sharing words of encouragement, we set off with our companions, ready for another stretch of the journey.

As we stand on the brink of Lent, we’re doing something like this. We’re seeking to be honest with ourselves and to remember what’s real and true, things are easy to overlook or take for granted. Most importantly, we’re remembering we are vulnerable and broken, in need of God’s loving care. We are also learning to embrace life on new terms. When we receive the cross of ash, it helps us to remember death is not the end. Jesus has made a way through.

As we gather for Ash Wednesday this year, let’s come with a sense of adventure. It might feel strange to pause like this when we’d otherwise forge ahead. But moments of sober reflection are important on the journey. They keep us alive and awake to all that truly matters.