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Ash Wednesday: The Importance of Confession

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Across religious traditions, Ash Wednesday marks a moment of confession. It is a day to stand in awe of our humanity and to be humbled by the fact that we are God’s creation and not people of our own making. Youth understand the deep call of Ash Wednesday: to claim once again that God alone is Lord of all, to confess the broken places of our humanity, and to begin a cleansing process of heart, mind, and soul that makes us ready for Easter. This threefold call—God’s claim on us as creatures, God’s invitation to confession, and the cleansing process that occurs in the Lenten season— helps us to live into the contours of what the Psalmist pleads for in Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10). Ash Wednesday is the first day in the forty-day season of Lent (excluding Sundays). Some traditions observe Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) the day before Ash Wednesday. As the journey to the cross unfolds over the next forty days, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of penitence and confession. The tradition of marking worshipers with ashes has long been a part of many denominations’ observance of Ash Wednesday. Too often the season of Lent is marked more by whether or not to eat sweets or sodas. While disciplines such as these might be a step toward God, they often become ends in themselves, marked more by “shoulds” than by a spirit of worship. Ash Wednesday directs our sights away from ourselves and what we can or cannot do to instead focus on God—the one who created us, calls us to confess, and offers a clean heart to those who call on him. Ash Wednesday offers reflection on God’s claim on us as creatures. This reflection is noted when we receive the imposition of ashes. Often the ashes are created from the palms used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance. Some churches use burned confessions as the basis for their ashes. Upon the imposition of ashes, when the mark of a cross or a smudge is received across the forehead, the minister quotes from either Genesis 3:19b (“You are dust, and to dust you shall return”) or Job 42:5–6 (“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”). A tremendous realignment comes with these words; anyone who considers themselves the center of their own universe is reminded that creatures crumble, only God reigns. The mark of the cross is an important piece of the worshiping tradition. While the words from Genesis and Job are from the Old Testament, the mark of the cross reminds us of the promise of the New Testament. God’s life crosses our life in the person of Jesus Christ, and that divine intersection calls us to a redeemed life, an abundant and eternal life. A central claim of Ash Wednesday is that we are called to confess our sin. Contemporary worship services often dismiss this part of the worship service. Talk of confession and even more so sin can seem dark and dismal. The irony of our adult decisions is that youth crave moments of worship that call them to go deep. Recently, in a youth planning meeting for our senior high youth group, the teenagers had the opportunity to name ideas for fellowship, worship, service, and discussion for the next semester of programming. Repeatedly, youth of different ages asked for moments of confession and the opportunity to burn their written words of confession. While sin is real and pervasive, we are not held captive to it. Christ comes as an active agent, present in the mark of the cross and the moment of worship, calling all of us to a new life. Ashes might be the beginning of the Lenten season, but the end is marked by precious oil. The ashes remind us of our humanity and shortcomings, the oil represents the pouring out of God’s grace. When ashes and oil come together, a cleansing agent is formed. The earliest soap was created by combining animal or vegetable oils with wood ash. When the worship of Ash Wednesday comes alongside the worship of Good Friday and Easter, ashes and oil come together. The cleansing that comes through the Lenten journey is not required because humans are dirty, unclean, or unworthy; an emphasis on this would be an emphasis on shame and guilt. The cleansing that comes is a gift. God pours out upon us grace upon grace in the midst of life that is surrounded by ashes and oil. On Ash Wednesday, we make a confession. We receive the mark of the cross on our forehead. That cross is made of ashes and oil. Those ashes and oil create a simple form of soap. Soap allows a cleansing process to begin. Even more so, as seen in the second experiment, it allows God and humanity to come together. Something happens in confession that draws us closer to God. Neither guilt nor shame could create that closeness. But instead, the precious gift of God who comes to us in a moment of confession creates a space where we can find freedom and freshness of heart. Ash Wednesday allows a cleansing process to begin. Likewise, Christ marks a new possibility; primitive sacrifices are no longer needed. When his life crosses our path, we find hope for our journey and restoration for our souls.
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