The True Meaning of Ash Wednesday

I began this week pretty confident that I knew what yesterday was about.

I wrote yesterday’s post a few days ago, thinking I’d figured it out; the post was about sacrifice and love and how we spend the life we have. I stand by that post; it’s a pretty good post.

But that’s not what yesterday was about.

Yesterday morning at breakfast, my wife talked to me about giving things up for Lent, and what her view of it is. “It’s not just about the giving up,” she told me. “It’s about replacing whatever you’re giving up with Jesus.”

“It’s like when we fasted in college. It was a very sweet time.” I remember that fast. I didn’t remember it being sweet. But then she reminded me– “that night, we went to the grocery store and got focaccia bread and cheese for the first time,” one of our favorite little snacky meals, even to this day.

She had replaced food during our fast. I hadn’t, so I couldn’t remember the sweet gift God gave us through it.

Then I read Romans 6 to my kids during lunch, where Paul talked about being united to Christ in His death and life; replacing our own sinful nature with His perfect nature.

Tonight, at the Ash Wednesday service, our worship leader talked about what he hoped this Lenten season was. He wanted the service to be a “planned crisis” where we snap out of our daily and weekly normalcy and replace our idols with Jesus instead of just giving ourselves high-fives for our incredible willpower in avoiding chocolate for forty days.

And then our pastor spoke about our tendency to run from uncomfortable situations, like our sin or talk of death, into general distraction. We’ve replaced the hope of the resurrection of Jesus with our cell phones and Netflix and chatting idly with our friends.

And we sang a song with this stanza:

The dearest idol I have known
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from the throne
And worship only thee.

-William Cowper, “O For a Closer Walk with God,” 1772

An image came to mind of a giant, ornate, glorious, beautiful, spotless golden throne with a red velvet cushion and carpet running up to it. And atop that cushion, sitting at an angle, was a flimsy, shoddily-made trophy. Like the plastic participation trophies we got when we were kids, about which so much has been made recently.

That trophy held all my own glory, all my comfort, all my control. Afraid to cede control to God, I live in unrest. Afraid to abandon my comfort, I pursue pillows of stone. Afraid to spill my glory out before the One who deserves it, I let it spoil and fester.

But all of that is simply representational. I’m really the one on that throne. I, me, mine, my. Because of my fear, I sit where God belongs.

In my faithlessness, I’ve become a pretender. In my fear, I’ve become a fraud. And I reject the True King, preferring my usurpation to His righteous rule.

That’s what Ash Wednesday was about: replacing my false reign with His true one.

I’m sorry I missed it.

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