There’s something that continually sticks out to me when I read the Bible, particularly when I read the stories of mourning and of repentance and that is sackcloth and ashes. When we read through stories of tremendous grief and sorrow, those two things are almost always associated.
Bible Gateway says this about sackcloth and ashes, “Sackcloth is a coarse, black cloth made from goat’s hair that was worn together with the burnt ashes of wood as a sign of mourning for personal and national disaster, as a sign of repentance and at times of prayer for deliverance.”
For some reason, the imagery that this practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes in response to mourning and sorrow and in the midst of repentance gives invokes in me this deep-rooted feeling – this deep stirring in my belly that is difficult to put words to but the closest I have is love.
It is when we are in deep mourning or deep repentance that we can more fully appreciate the love that is lavished upon us wholly undeserving people. It is when we humble ourselves, die to self, and repent that we can see just how much grace God pours out as a gift we never did anything to earn.
Ash Wednesday falling on the same day as Valentine’s Day could not be more perfectly planned, I think.
At the start of this Lenten season, the ashes that are being spread on foreheads today symbolize to me repentance. They symbolize this incredible sense of humility and smallness and sorrow that comes when we actually force ourselves to confront our sins. When we look at ourselves in the mirror long enough to see all of the ways that culture and society and the enemy have wedged themselves between us and God. And friends, to confront that and stand face to face with this demands our repentance. It demands our grief and our sorrow for all of the ways that we turn from God day in and day out – whether we mean to or not.
But on a day when culture and society are spewing out all of these manufactured tokens of superficial love and spreading guilt and shame to those without “true love” in their lives, Ash Wednesday adds some much needed perspective to the mix that is setting my soul on fire today. When we look at this day and at this season with a Lenten focus and remember why we reflect and repent during these 40 days – this Valentine kind of love just seems so obviously lacking. Lacking in substance, lacking in meaning, and lacking in the perfect love that came at the expense of Jesus on the cross.
The customary practice during Lent is to give something up until Easter and growing up, this was a practice that I truly never gave significant thought to when I was growing up in the Catholic church. My go-to was usually giving up soda or something like that but in recent years as I have grown in my faith, God has really laid it on my heart to consider not just what I could give up to draw nearer to Him but what I could potentially add in order to achieve the same result. That could be adding in the habit/practice of reading the Bible daily or meditating, two things I do already, but I think it also comes down to our posture. Sure, I’m already doing some of the things that can draw us in closer to God but where is the posture of my heart when I do these things? Am I doing them to just check it off a list or am I actively listening and actively quieting my mind in order to be more in tune with God?
As I write this, I’m also reading some excerpts from Pope Francis’ homily earlier today during the Ash Wednesday service at the Vatican and his thoughts perfectly echoes the cry of my heart lately.
”Pause from this compulsion to a fast-paced life that scatters, divides and ultimately destroys time with family, with friends, with children, with grandparents, and time as a gift…time with God,” he said today, before continuing with, “Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.”
Silence and stillness have the power to amplify God’s voice and truth and it is my prayer this season that I am able to instill this into my own life. The kind of love that this day marks is not one that can be found on a store shelf or in the boxes of chocolates being passed around. No, it’s not a coincidence that Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. May we all draw nearer to the source of the purest and greatest love there is in this season.