Ash Wednesday – What’s it all about?

There was a song many, many years ago… What’s it all about Alfie? And when I think of Ash Wednesday I am reminded of the song. Ash Wednesday is not intuitive in figuring out what this day is all about.

We may know it is the beginning of the season of Lent. But even the term Lent is itself brings questions. (“What was lent and to whom?” Might seem a normal question.) The name comes from the word Lengten indicating that the hours of daylight are lengthening. But that refers to the external season. It indicates a season of going from greater darkness to more light both literally around us and in our walk with God if we use the church season for that purpose.

The epistle reading and the GOSPEL for the day seem to be about intention and action. Paul speaks of being reconciled with God – and making the decision to act on that “for now is the acceptable time and now is the day of salvation”. To have the intention does little good unless we act upon it. My grandfather often told me that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We have to do more than just have an intention – we need to turn our intention into an action that moves us from the shadows towards the light.

Often religious action takes the form of taking on specific spiritual or religious practices – that sounds good, right? Well yes and no. Jesus in looking at the religious folk around him realized that we can do the right ritual thing for all the wrong reason and get no benefit from them.

Take the ritual from which Ash Wednesday gets its name – Ashes. In the ancient near east to put on ashes and to wear sackcloth (rough burlap like clothing) was a symbol of mourning and repentance. But Jesus noted that some around seemed to do it not as the outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual change, but simply to be noticed and to have other be impressed by the piety of the wearer of ashes.

If we adopt spiritual practices (such as receiving the ashes) Jesus is telling us to do it because it has an inner meaning for us – not just to signal to others that we are religious.

So too with fasting – or giving alms – or prayer. Adopt these things because we find in them meaning for us and as help in moving us towards the light of God.

And finally the Gospel challenges us to identify what it is we treasure… what HAS GREAT VALUE FOR US? Material things can be corroded, stolen or otherwise lost to us. I can recall with great clarity begging my parents and grandfather for an electronic gismo that I wanted when I was 13. That seemed more important than anything else in my life at that time. Now 50 years later that shortwave radio has no real value to me. But the rapport I had with my grandparents and the values my parent instilled in me are the real treasure that was stored up for me and has become a treasure I can share with our children and grandchildren.

So too the values of the Gospel can shape and inform our lives so that we will be able to share them like precious gems with those we love and care about.

This season is one that goes from Ashes to Easter; moving from the shadows to the light so that we become ever more the people we were created to be.



About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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