Ash Wednesday is about new beginnings. It is about repentance (literally “changing direction”). It is about returning to God and away from the separation that leads to sin and death.
It embraces both judgement and grace – grace that offers forgiveness. There is judgement in saying “we all fall short of the glory of God.” There is grace in saying “God desires not the death of sinners.” This is both condemning and freeing and it is exactly what the Church ought to be saying.
Ash Wednesday, starting Lent, is an outward and visible demonstration of a process leading us towards repentance for a season, and beyond.
Repentance means willingness to change. It means accepting that we can change. It means taking steps to ensure that we make necessary changes.
There is a process called Appreciative Inquiry used in many churches (and other organisations), uplifting and enhancing what is good, rather than picking over what is wrong. From this process, there are three Rs of Repentance:
Recognise: That we are doing something we don’t want to do. Without awareness we will never recognise our need to change.
Regret: Being conscious of the cost to others and ourselves of our actions. If we don’t truly regret our actions we will not change.
Reorient: Turning from what we don’t want, to what we do want. If we continue to focus our attention on what we don’t want we will persist in that behaviour.
Lenten disciplines are ways of reminding ourselves of what is imperfect in our lives, and creating a structure that connects us with the wilderness time of Jesus to contemplate the three Rs of repentance.
Lenten discipline is not primarily about self-improvement, commendable though that may be. At least, it’s only about one form of self-improvement: improvement of our spiritual life, self-improvement in terms of making the most, the best, of the humanity – the life – we have been given.
In the end, Ash Wednesday, and our willingness to be marked as penitent, introduces Lent as a process of reconciliation with God and God’s values.
The Apostle Paul expresses this spirit of humility and reconciliation best in one of the readings for Ash Wednesday (2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10):
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
What with that message of commitment and resilience, and Paul’s accompanying list of spiritual gifts as goals:
… purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God …
… what more do we need, and what more can be said?