This Wednesday, February 26, 2020, Christians will celebrate Ash Wednesday. This solemn occasion is the traditional start of the Lenten season when Christians prepare for Easter by reflecting on their mortality, their need for a Savior, and the renewal of spiritual disciplines in their lives.
I recall the Ash Wednesday during the last Presidential election year of 2016 when one candidate displayed the familiar mark of ashes on his forehead as he conducted a town hall meeting somewhere in South Carolina. No doubt, skeptics mocked this as some sort of self-righteous grab for votes. Frankly, I saw it as an act of bold witness. We live in an increasingly secularized culture that displays less and less tolerance for spiritual things, much less spiritual practices such as Ash Wednesday. Let’s face it, if you randomly polled folks on the street, they are far more likely to associate Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday to the start of Lent than Ash Wednesday. Even some Christians think this is just some Catholic thing, not realizing that even the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association issues daily meditations for the Lenten season.
This reminds me of another Ash Wednesday. It was February 22, 2012, when the Chairman of AT&T conducted a Leadership webcast for Company leaders. His guest speaker was Patrick Lencioni, a well-known and respected author, and expert on business and team management. With a worldwide audience of AT&T Leaders watching, Mr. Leoncini delivered a compelling presentation on teamwork. Yet what I most remember from that day was not what he said as much as the bold witness of his faith. Apparently, Mr. Leoncini belonged to a Christian faith community that observed Ash Wednesday and Lent. I say this because as he walked to the stage, there for all to see, was an ashen cross marked upon his forehead. He quickly explained matter-of-factly that today being Ash Wednesday, he had been to his church that morning and received the mark of ashes. Then he promptly began to deliver an hour-long presentation. While I had long admired his writings, now I had to admit, this dude was a gutsy guy that cared more about his faith commitment than what others might think.
For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a day to reflect on the refrain, “we are dust and to dust we shall return,” and a sobering reminder that life is both precious and limited. One author suggests that reflective walks through cemeteries are a good Lenten practice. I am a step ahead of him on that one. I occasionally will sojourn to my family’s cemetery plot to visit the graves of my grandparents, my parents, and my late wife. There beside them is another grave marker bearing my own name engraved in stone. All it lacks is a death date.
Talk about sobering.
Yet, Lent is more than just a time of reflection. As one preacher put it, it is also a time of repentance, renewal, and reconciliation. And just as physical exercises promote physical fitness, spiritual practices serve to discipline our spiritual appetites. The consistent focus on improving our spiritual well-being during Lent cultivates a hunger for that which is righteous and a desire to be more Christ-like.
Yes, walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our foreheads sets us apart from most others. But just as this day is the start of Lent, so too is this bold display of ashes just a start of our witness. As Pope Benedict said in his 2011 Lenten message, “We Christians must be a living message; in fact, in many cases, we are the only Gospel that the men of today still read.” Or, as Breakpoint commentator, John Stonestreet reminds us, “it is how we live our lives every day that should be the real Sign of Contradiction.”
Bold ashes? Yes! And a bold start for sure.