Remembering the Compassion of God on Ash Wednesday
The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
Today is Ash Wednesday, a day recognized by Christians throughout the world as the beginning of Lent, which is season to prepare for a deeper experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Not all Christians acknowledge Ash Wednesday because it is not required in Scripture. For the much of my life, I considered Ash Wednesday and Lent as Roman Catholic traditions that were irrelevant to me. But, in recent years, I, along with millions of other Protestants, have discovered in these traditions an opportunity for growing in our relationship with God.
Ash Wednesday is perhaps best known for the ashes imposed on the foreheads of Christians. As this happens, the person putting the ashes on the head of another usually quotes or paraphrases what God said to Adam after he had eaten the forbidden fruit: “For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). Thus, the ashes on our foreheads are a reminder of our mortality. We were created from the very dust to which we will return when we die.
Ash Wednesday services tend to be serious in tone, even somber. When, as a pastor, I have imposed ashes on people’s foreheads and quoted Genesis 3:19, I am essentially telling people that they will die. I am reminding them of their neediness and frailty as human beings, not to mention their mortality. Such an announcement is not an occasion for obvious rejoicing.
But the appropriate sobriety of Ash Wednesday should not neglect the overarching grace of God. We were created from dust, yes, by the loving hand of God. And our eventual return to dust does not erase this love. In Psalm 103, for example, we read: “The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him” (103:13). The Hebrew verb racham, translated as “to have compassion” is used twice in this verse to convey God’s care for us. This verb is a version of the Hebrew word rechem, which means “womb.” In a powerful mixing of metaphors, Psalm 103:13 reveals that God is like a father who cares for his children as a mother cherishes the children of her own womb.
Verse 14 supplies one reason for God’s extraordinary compassion: “For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.” God cares for us tenderly, not only because this reflects God’s own nature, but also because he sees our weakness, our dustiness, if you will.
Thus, Ash Wednesday is not only a day to remember our dusty mortality, our weakness, neediness, and eventual death. It is also a day to celebrate God’s compassion. Because we are dust, God cares for us like a father with his children. His love for us is like that of a mother for the children of her womb. And this love will be more fully celebrated at the end of Lent, when we come to the Cross.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What have been your experiences (if any) of Ash Wednesday? Do you ever think of your own mortality? How does this make you feel? How do you respond to the tender compassion of God for you?
PRAYER: Gracious God, on this Ash Wednesday, I remember that I have come from dust, and to dust I will return. As I get older, it’s easier for me to feel this truth. My frame is weak and my days are numbered.
How thankful I am that, as you see my weakness and remember my dustiness, you feel compassion toward me. You do not reject me, but rather reach out to me in love. Ultimately, your care for me in my dusty sinfulness will lead you to bear my sin upon the Cross. Today, at the beginning of Lent, I begin to consider just how much I need you to be my Savior.
May the next six weeks before Good Friday and Easter be for me a time of reflection and preparation. Whether I call this time “Lent” or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I use this season of the year to draw near to you, to recommit myself to you, and to ready my heart to receive the Good News that is coming.
All praise be to you, compassionate, gracious, loving God. Amen.
P.S. from Mark
If you’re looking for more information about Ash Wednesday and Lent, or you’d like resources for Lent and Holy Week, please check this page at my blog.