Remember the Ashes

When it comes to movies, if it falls outside the Marvel or DC universes, I probably haven’t seen it. There are exceptions, though. The Pixar movie Inside Out – which I admit watching with only a slight hesitation of embarrassment – gave us a glimpse into the mind of a young girl navigating her way through the change and loss that life brings. In it, we see the personified emotions of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness as they attempt, with the best of intentions, to help her along in this journey. Joy is determined to rule all, wanting the young girl’s life to be filled with nothing else, and works to prevent Sadness from touching any of the guarded and treasured memories. The unforeseen result, however, is one of breakdown and chaos. We soon come to understand that Joy cannot be fully experienced in the girl’s life without the recognition of Sadness. In fact, it was often in the brokenness of Sadness that she experienced the unexpected love and help of others, resulting in a Joy that she would not have known otherwise.

As Christians, we should find this discovery to be nothing new, but an echo of the hope we proclaim, the Good News that in our brokenness and sorrow we experience the unexpected, and undeserved, joy of grace. That’s why Ash Wednesday, and the season of Lent that it begins, matters. The beauty and wonder of grace is not fully realized without first recognizing our desperate need. The love of Christ, demonstrated in His suffering and death, captures us more completely as we acknowledge our brokenness, and the power of His resurrection brings new life within us as we confess our absolute dependence. Our sorrowful admission of mortality and weakness on Ash Wednesday points us to the joy of our rescue; the forty-day journey of Lent, marked by repentance and sacrifice, leads us to full awareness and celebration of our redemption. One without the other is not a full story.

Many of us are quick to jump to the celebration of the Resurrection, like Walmart rolling in the Easter candy as soon as the Valentine’s candy goes on clearance. With our singular focus on Easter, we neglect the season of confession and sacrifice that goes before. Perhaps it is another unfortunate aspect of our being conformed to the culture around us, one marked by an idolatrous self-reliance and independence, placated by an excess of comfort and convenience. Giving little thought or value to wilderness experiences, we jump from one achievement or celebration to the next. Our lack of reflection in this part of the journey has drained us of mystery and wonder; our failure to look honestly within blinds us to the greatness of the gift offered. Missing the touch of sorrow, and the admission of our weakness, we are incapable of fully celebrating the grace of our deliverance.

And that’s why Ash Wednesday matters. It’s why Lent matters. This is not simply a season we pass through unaware for the sake of getting to Easter – it is an essential part of the story that brings full meaning to the end. The incomparable beauty of God’s love and grace is discovered in the painful but necessary confession of who we truly are, and the hope of the Resurrection becomes real when we remember the ashes. So, may the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” remind us of our utter dependence and need, and may the ashes, in the form of the Cross, point us to the celebration to come.