Ash Wednesday

Hopeful Expectation

“Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” Hebrews 12:1-3, MSG

It’s been seven months now since I moved away from home. Not that Earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things considering that I just moved 2.5 hours away and I’m at least in the same state but hey, for me, these seven months have been jam-packed.

This move has been easy. It’s been smooth and natural and in many ways, it was a long time coming. But it’s also been hard. Difficult in ways that I don’t even fully know how to articulate to another person. This journey has been rocky and revealing and messy but I’ve been stretched in some ways and strengthened in others and so this journey also feels holy to me.

Hard and holy.

Two words that have been a recurring theme in my mind lately when I think of my life and the soul work that God has been doing in this season.

This time last year, I was going through Blue Letter Bible’s Chronological Bible plan and was reading of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness towards the promised land. I resonated with the story, I thought. I had been journeying through a season of preparation for 2.5 years and felt like I was like the Israelites in a way and moving closer and closer to the “promised land” that I had been envisioning.

Admittedly, there is a slight sense of grieving over the story that didn’t come to fruition. But what I know of God and this life that we are doing together is that my grief for what could have been doesn’t negate the feelings of hopeful expectation for what is to come in this new story. And on this Ash Wednesday, that is what I am clinging to.

Hopeful expectation.

Lent is a season that is becoming increasingly precious to me with every year that goes by. It’s more than just 40 days of giving up candy or soda – as it so often was when I was a child. It’s an opportunity for reflection, fasting, and prayer. A chance to draw near to Jesus in the days leading up to His ultimate sacrifice. The words in the verses above – “Because he never lost sight of where he was headed” – stick out to me, especially today on Ash Wednesday. How many times have we lost sight of where we were doing and what we are working towards?

It is my prayer that this Lenten season would be an opportunity to re-orient myself and lean further into Him. That it would be a sweet reminder to not lose sight of where I’m headed. For me, the Lord is leading me to fast from sleeping in so that I can reestablish margin and space for spending time with Him in the mornings. And although the decision of what I’m fasting from didn’t really come until yesterday, I think it’s been a long time coming and a beautiful continuation of what the Lord has already been doing in my heart this past month.

And so I am here at Ash Wednesday in hopeful expectation and eager longing for what is to come and what the Lord is going to do through this season.

Love + Ashes

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.

Love + Ashes

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.

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