Ash Wednesday was always a confusing experience for me growing up. I could never quite understand or wrap my mind around what was going on. Granted, much of that probably had to do with growing in three different faith traditions (Methodist, Catholic, and Baptist), and all three put their own spin on the service, or omitted it altogether. The "ashes-on-the-forehead" thing never made sense to me. It seemed contradictory to dress up for church only to go rub dirt on your face.
So, what's the deal with Ash Wednesday? Why are millions of people in almost every country of the world gathered together, confessing the name of Jesus Christ, and rubbing ashes on their foreheads? Why this day, and why this night? In the end, it might come down to two of the most unpalatable and uncomfortable words in our spiritual vocabulary - confession and repentance.
Most of us don't like to talk about those two words. We don't like to talk about confession, because confession means that we're talking about our failures. Confession means that we're coming face-to-face with our scars - the uglier parts of our lives that we'd just assume keep concealed and under wraps. Confession means we're acknowledging, along with Paul in Romans 3:23, that we all sin and fall short of God's standard and design for our living.
We don't like to talk about repentance either. For some of us, our minds might immediately drift back to some traumatic experience with hyper-legalism, like some church elder condemning us for the cardinal sins of listening to "devil music" and wearing shorts to Sunday service.
But at it's root, repentance means seeing the sin in our lives - the habits, actions, and patterns in our lives that don't line up with God's design - and running in the opposite direction. Repentance means that we're no longer living life as we did the day before. Repentance means change - radical, dramatic, and often drastic change - and that's never easy.
When we think about the two concepts of confession and repentance, our minds tend to immediately focus on our own personal, intimate, and private spiritual lives and relationship with God. We might ask ourselves questions in the deep recesses of our heart. Questions like, "What are the sins that I'm struggling in? What do I need to confess? What parts of my life need change and repentance?" We might ponder those things in the shelter of solitude, prayer, and silence. We might even follow through with the instructions given in James 5:16, to confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.
I think Ash Wednesday can be about that. I think we can use a night like tonight to dig down deeply into ourselves and come to grips with those parts of our lives that we haven't yet fully given over to God. Yet, on day like today, with millions around the world gathered together, tonight is also about something more than just our own personal sins and struggles.
It's also about what we see the nation of Israel doing in Nehemiah 9, where the children of God gather together not simply as scattered individuals, but as one people. As God's people, they gathered to confess and repent - fasting and throwing ashes on their heads as a sign of deep sorrow and mourning. They came together not just to confess their personal sins, but their corporate sins.
That's a pretty strange and foreign concept for most of us - the idea of corporate sins. It's difficult to wrap our minds around the idea, because we so often think of the sin in our life as some type of private affair - something between God and I that I'm trying to get ironed out behind the scenes and behind closed doors. However, the reality is that we never really sin in solitude, and the effects of our choices are felt far beyond our own private spiritual lives. As Walter Raushchenbusch once wrote, "Sin is not a private transactions between the sinner and God. Humanity always crowds the room when God holds court."
In Nehemiah 9, the nation of Israel had gathered together to confess and repent of their unfaithfulness as God's covenant people. God had chosen Israel, out of all the nations of the earth, to be a light to the world and example to the rest of humanity. God had given them the task of modeling the characteristics of his nature - to show the rest of the world what God was like, his love, mercy, and justice. Yet, as a community of people, Israel had to confess that they had fallen short.
As a God's representatives, they'd become distracted, chasing after other gods and idols, and worrying so much about fitting in with the world around them that they had lost their identity as God's chosen people. So they gathered together, threw ashes on their head, confessed, repented, and found a new beginning.
Now here we are, thousands of years later, and we've been given the very same task. We who claim the name of Christ have been given the task of being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the manifestation of Jesus' love to the rest of humanity. We have been called to be imitators of God, the hands and feet of Christ, and the very aroma of God among the nations. We are supposed to "be Christ" for the world around us.
So, how's that goin? As the children of God, how are we doing with being the salt, light, and love that the world so desperately needs? Are we like the nation of Israel in Nehemiah 9, having become distracted by other things and chasing after different "priorities"? Have we become so preoccupied with fitting in with the rest of the world around us that we've forgotten our identity as Christ followers?
So what are our corporate sins as the people of God? Where do we often fall short?
When our struggles with anger and religious pride wound the relationships with those around us, so that Christians are known more for judgement and hatred than we are for love and forgiveness, we have sinned.
When our bitterness, gossip, and deceitfulness impair the community that Christ has designed for his church to be, we have sinned.
When our sins of greed, excess, and consumerism stretch halfway around the world to fuel sweatshops in Malaysia and child labor in third-world countries, we have sinned.
When we buy into our sexually driven society that makes the industries of pornography and the underground sex trades to be two of the most profitable undertakings in our economy, we have sinned.
When we allow the evils of racism and discrimination to drive our decisions on the employees we hire, the neighborhoods we live in, and the people we allow into our lives, we have sinned.
Our sins as a people stretch far beyond our personal spiritual lives, but bleed out into the way we see the world around us and the actions we take...or don't take. Probably one of the greatest sins that we as the people of God are guilty of isn't blasphemy or even idolatry. It's apathy. It's indifference. It's seeing injustice, the hurting, the broken, the outcast, the poor and oppressed, and we just don't care. Or at least we don't care enough to do something about it. What we fail to see is that "we join the oppressors of those we choose to ignore" and whatever we did not do for the least of these, we did not do for Him. We have sinned.
So, what do we do with that? What do we do when we come face-to-face with the reality that, just like the nation of Israel in Nehemiah 9, we have often failed to be the light of the world that God has designed us to be. What do we do when we realize that we've become known more for the things that we hate than for the people we love?
We gather together on a night like tonight, as the people of God, with millions of other believers. We put ashes on our forehead as a symbold of sorrow and mortality. And we remember.
We remember the story of Peter, who after denying Christ three times, found forgiveness, restoration, and a new beginning. We remember the cross, and the blood of Jesus that can remove our sins "as far as the east is from the west." We remember the empty tomb - the resurrection - that Christ conquered death and gives ultimate victory over sin.
And we confess. And we repent.
Because on a night like tonight, with millions of other believes, we know that we are not alone.