By its very nature, repentance is inconvenient. It requires a turning in direction. It requires a deep sorrow, contrition. Recently J.I. Packer compared it to a military about-face, a literal turning in the other direction.
We remember Ash Wednesday every year, and in recent year there have been some strange new winds. Some of which are not necessary to discuss because they find themselves so out far outside the bound of orthodoxy that it is needless. One trend that is concerning is Drive By Ashes or Ashes on the Go. We’ve seen the signs for them or heard stories about it. I was troubled when I first heard of it but didn’t feel like saying anything at the time. However, I think it is reasonable to say that it attempts makes something which has an inconvenient nature convenient.
We set aside one day a year as a call to repentance. Admittedly, every day is really a call to repentance, laying ourselves down at the end of the day to die to our sins, and rising up the next morning new in Christ. Yet, Ash Wednesday is the loud vocal call. From dust, you have come, and to dust, you will return. We are asked for an hour of our time to turn our hearts away, to prepare for the holy season of Lent, where we cast off our old self, in anxious preparation for the remembrance of the death and resurrection of our Savior.
I am certain the Ashes on the Go people are well meaning, and I am certain they want folks to walk with Christ. Yet, repentance is inconvenient. It shakes up our lives, it shines a light in the dark shadows where we’d hoped our sin could ride out the night without disruption. Yet, the like the dust on the back of the refrigerator or underneath the armchair it too must be cleared away. The light that shines in our darkness is Christ himself, and in response to him, we turn to live a new life, fleeing from these temptations.
Ash Wednesday isn’t about the ashes. It’s about the repentance, it’s about the new life in Christ. Ashes on Ash Wednesday is a relatively new thing to Anglicanism in America. With the exception of the most Anglo-Catholic parishes, most had simple solemn services of repentance on that holy day. We even read from Matthew 6, where Jesus warns not to mark ourselves with outward signs of fasting. However, in the last 60 or so years, the mimic of Roman Catholicism became mainstream and we all started to do it.
I won’t join arms with my reformed brothers and sisters on this and say we shouldn’t do the ashes, I think they are a helpful reminder. However, the ashes aren’t the reason for Ash Wednesday. They are the reminder of the importance. They are the outward call of what we need to be doing on the inside, and that thing is not easy or convenient. It is, however, by the grace of Christ Jesus very good.
We are reminded that we have a good God who takes back his prodigal son or daughter with open arms, regardless of where we’ve been. Who runs to us in the fields of sorrow, who invites us back in, every day. Isn’t the hour in the middle of your work week, once a year worth the time?
Repentance is not convenient, but it is worth it. For it brings us into a closer walk with Jesus. So, this Ash Wednesday take the time, to halt, stop, pray, and make an about face towards our Lord. It is worth the cost.