Ash Wednesday is About Your Heart, Not Your Forehead
That is why the Lord says, “Turn to me now, while there is time.
Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.”
Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
Growing up Baptist, I had no experience with Lent until adulthood. We certainly observed Good Friday and Easter Sunday with great solemnity, but Lent was something for “the Catholics” and I knew very little about it. I have a Catholic friend who is very devout and with whom I have many deep, meaningful conversations about faith. So, one year, having heard about Lent and being intrigued and challenged by the concept, I decided to mark my forehead with ashes and participate by giving something up. I excitedly phoned my dear friend a couple of days into Lent and let her know. I sensed something was terribly wrong as soon as I mentioned the ashes. She asked me what priest had marked my forehead. I told her I had done it myself—with ashes from our fireplace. Fred and I had burned an old packing crate the previous evening and so had some lovely, fragrant cedar ashes, fresh and ready. She was aghast. I had no idea the ashes themselves were the previous year’s palm branches, saved and dried, and then burned specifically to provide ash for the service. I weakly suggested the attitude of my heart was more important than the state of the ashes. My friend wasn’t so sure.
Now, many years later, I am sure—by far the most important part of Lenten observances is the state of my heart. Lent is the time for us to enter into the suffering of Christ and to prepare our hearts for celebrating his death and resurrection. Both physically and metaphorically, we are experiencing the last of winter and anticipating with great joy the coming of spring. The marking with ashes and giving up of something we cherish has value only if it draws us closer to the heart of God. The ashes remind us of our sinfulness. The year I observed Ash Wednesday with a cedar packing crate smudged on my forehead reminded me keenly of my dirtiness before God. There is nothing quite like having the schmutz on your face pointed out all day long to help you focus on your sin. However, I was aware of my sin along with sincere and intense gratitude, because I knew in my heart it was sin forgiven. Many years I have given something up for Lent in addition to adding in a spiritual practice. Sometimes the giving up and adding in are nothing more than a daily inconvenience, but when my heart is in the right place, it is a deeply spiritual experience and a reminder of Christ’s suffering on my behalf and his redeeming power in my life.
A friend posted the following on Facebook. No matter which physical practices I undertake during Lent, this is what I hope for the state of my heart:
Fast from excess and feast on simplicity,
Fast from negatives and feast on alternatives,
Fast from discontent and feast on gratitude,
Fast from gossip and feast on silence,
Fast from self-concern and feast on compassion,
Fast from anxiety and feast on faith.
According to Joel 2:12-13, God has an intense interest in our hearts. He instructs us to give Him our hearts, and not to tear our clothes but to tear our hearts. The outward is of little consequence if it does not lead to inward change. If our ashes and “giving up” are merely a show, we are no better than the Pharisee praying on the street corner (Matthew 6:5). Our reward will be found only in our smudged face and ability to talk about what we’ve given up. How much better would be a change in the state of our hearts?