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Rethinking Ash Wednesday and Lent: How Our Frailty Leads Us to Jesus

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

“…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


These words give us perspective. Our grandiose imaginations of what we

hope to accomplish are tempered with the colors of realism. Our schemes

and strivings—always set on what’s next—receive boundaries. Our innate

idealism about the human spirit is hit with a dose of moderation. Whatever

hope we may have for this life, this biblical truth—that we are dust—forces

us to face the stark and sad reality that we live on borrowed time.

The painful reality of these words hinders us, not because it is the natural

state of things, but because it is the culmination of the curse that Adam

brought upon himself and all his descendants when he rebelled against

God. With Adam’s fall, the stage was set: “Therefore, just as sin came into

the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to

all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).

This is the theological background of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day for “acknowledging our wretchedness.”[1] This inaugurates the season of Lent, which reminds us of Jesus’s 40 days of temptation and fasting in the wilderness (see Matt.

4:1–11) and is a time to be reminded of our own need for grace.[2] In Ash

Wednesday and Lent, we face the facts that our predicament is much more

serious than simply stating, “All good things must come to an end.” Rather,

we recognize that we are indicted as co-conspirators and under the

sentence of death. Ash Wednesday declares to us a need for rescue and

resurrection far greater than a fresh start or a second chance.

Two Unhelpful Approaches

There are different approaches to Ash Wednesday and Lent, but whatever

form observance takes in local churches, my main concern is with two

unhelpful impulses.

The first unhelpful approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is to be overly

penitential—to confuse wallowing with repentance. Repentance is a gift of

God that he gives graciously to all believers (Rom. 2:4). Furthermore, Lent

is a fitting time to seek reconciliation with those who are estranged (Gal.

6:1)—to “live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18) and “walk in love” (Eph. 5:2).

The trouble comes when we become so introspective about our sin that we

function as if repentance merits forgiveness. This again leads to self-

trust—the belief that the degree of our penitence serves as a barometer for

what God thinks of us.

Second and more common is the asceticism approach—fasting for 40

days. The common items people give up for Lent sound uncomfortably

like a contemporary crash diet—no red meat, sugar, alcohol, etc. I don’t

question the motivation here—indeed, such fasts are still intended to focus

on Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. But I contend that they don’t lead to

spiritual maturity because they allow us to maintain control. We choose

what to give up and attempt to white-knuckle our way through the 40 days.

This asceticism doesn’t lead to spiritual growth because it doesn’t provide

space for faith. Instead, it provokes self-reliance. As Paul warns, “These

have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and

asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the

indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

An Alternative Approach

Instead of these unhelpful practices, I’d like to provide an alternative

approach that centers us on the finished work of Jesus in a way that

actually meets us in the depths of our need. Ultimately, Lent can be a

beautiful season in the church year that leads us to face the reality of our

sin and fallen frailty. The ashes proclaim to us a word of reality—a word

that curbs our pride: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). When that

happens, Lent provides the space for us to trust not in our own merits, but

in the merits of Jesus, saying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to

me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). This cry for mercy doesn’t wallow in

introspective ultra-penitence; it’s confident in divine grace: “I tell you, this

man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).

In this way, Lent speaks a word of mercy in our suffering. Contrary to

asceticism, we don’t choose how we suffer, and therefore we’re forced to

recognize we are not in control. Suffering then becomes the space in our

lives in which faith must be strengthened. The pressures we would gladly

be rid of show no end in sight—certainly not in 40 days. When we give

something up for a time, we might look for help, but as sinners and

sufferers, we look for resurrection, and that is true faith and true hope.

Practically, this looks like placing a high emphasis not on wallowing but on

the means by which God has promised to give life to the dead and

dying—to hear the gospel preached at church, knowing it’s God’s means of

creating faith and new life (Rom. 10:17). It means feeding on Jesus in the

Lord’s Supper as he promises in John 6:54–56: “Whoever feeds on my

flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last

day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds

on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

All throughout the year, God uses these means of grace to cause us to

“become accustomed to change, to see beyond the shadow of death and

hear a hymn in which hope and history rhyme: as in the gospel God is …

the one who promises beyond the possible.”[3] It’s here—when we face our

sin and suffering—that our ears are tuned to such promises, to the hymn of

Good Friday and Easter: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever

believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and

believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Ash Wednesday and Lent

can lead us to await this hymn with sure joy and certain hope.

[1] The 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament

and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter

as they are to be sung or said in churches; and the form or manner of

making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons,

International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 87

[2] The 1662 BCP, International Edition, 89

[3] Jonathan A. Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Grand

Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,  2022), 23

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