The Scriptures for Ash Wednesday are the same in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle. We hear the solemn call to repentance from Joel, urging us to “rend our hearts and not our garments” (Joel 2:13). Psalm 51, a penitential prayer, calls upon God to cleanse and renew the wayward. The Epistle declares the God is reconciling sinners through Christ, who offers righteousness rather than retribution (2 Corinthians 5:21). Finally, the Gospel reading urges humility in spiritual practices, especially when we fast, pray, and give alms (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21).
Each of these texts calls us to recognize how inescapable is our accountability to God and how prone we are to neglect that reality. Receiving the imposition of ashes reminds us of our temporality and our need of the breath of God, the Spirit, to sustain our lives.
A revered theology professor, Dr. William Hendricks, used to greet his class with these words: “Frail children of dust.” It was a bracing message for students in their early twenties, at the height of physical strength and intellectual promise. For those who let the words find resonance in their spirits, it was a perceptive reminder of their true estate.
Lent is a journey through the wilderness of our lives that makes possible “coming to ourselves,” an echo of the experience of the Prodigal. We wrestle with our temptations, acknowledge those overweening desires that seduce us, and feel the deep hunger of our spiritual poverty.
We seek to put off practices that prevent human flourishing and put on those that nurture faith and hope. Confession, repentance, fasting, and alms giving to the poor prepare us to living more fully before the presence of God, to whom all hearts are open.
In her reflection on this holy season, The Rising, Wendy Wright urges stark measures: “Let go of the old ways that lead to such pain. Start over. Fast. Empty yourselves to be filled with something new.”
On Ash Wednesday, I will be flying to Myanmar once again (with ashes on my brow), just ahead of our students and other faculty members. I will be conferring Doctor of Ministry degrees on ten of the first cohort of students shared by Central and Myanmar Institute of Theology on March 9th. In that dusty land of burden and blessing, I will recognize human frailty and our groaning need of gracious redemption.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.