“Out of the ashes we rise.” The image is vivid, provocative, unexpected. Fire consumes everything, and yet, we find a way to keep going, to rise to the occasion and find renewal in the face of destruction. More than a time to swear off sugar and feel sorry for yourself, Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and self reflection.
I didn’t grow up with Lent or Ash Wednesday. In fact, I’m not sure I even knew what they were until after high school. So I’m still learning. Because change and the same old thing can sometimes be enemies of growth (leading to either discomfort or stagnation), many Protestants abandoned some of the ritual traditions of the historic church calendar, but many ancient practices are finding new life as they themselves rise from the ashes.
Lent (“the lengthening of days” or Anglo-Saxon for “Spring”) began as preparation for Baptism for new converts to Christianity. It was a time of self-reflection and repentance—a time of turning one’s life around, embracing a new life of following Christ. Today many people see it as a time to feel bad about yourself and think about death and suffering. But that’s only the first part of the story. Lent is an invitation to look again at your own life in light of the life of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The emphasis is more about finding new life rather than feeling bad about your old one.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The traditional saying accompanying the imposition of ashes is rather dark and morbid, and we find in it a challenge to our grand egotism and inflated view of ourselves. But also in it we find a reminder of a cycle that should play out daily in our lives—that of death and resurrection. This cycle of renewal is built into many Christian traditions, but it’s easiest to see in Baptism where, as Baptists practice, the believer is “Buried with him by baptism into death” as they are lowered beneath the water, and then “Raised to walk in newness of life.”
But we get it wrong. Instead of focussing on the “newness of life” part, we carry our sins around with us, resurrecting sins instead of letting ourselves find new life. We keep resurrecting our old self instead of letting it die. We dwell on the past, and we don’t forgive ourselves for all the things we are ashamed of. And as a result we bring our own demons back to life, time and again resurrecting the shadows of the past. But Ash Wednesday calls us to “repentance”—not to feel sorry but to turn our lives around. And to do that you have to let your old self die. You have to let your past become dust. You have to throw a little dirt on the grave of all your shame and regret.
Ash Wednesday calls us to reflect on our mortality and confess our sins “before God within the community of faith,” but it also calls us to “proclaim the grace of God, as well as reconcile with those whom we have hurt or who have hurt us” (Duck 131). I would add “to be reconciled with ourselves.”
So as we enter Lent this week, seek renewal! Seek revival! Don’t get stuck in the mud of your own dust. But let it be “the fertile soil in which something new can grow” (Palmer 116).