Today is Ash Wednesday for millions of Christian believers around the globe. The ashes symbolize, primarily, repentance. In the Old Testament it was common for people in mourning and repentance to wear itchy, uncomfortable sackcloth and sit in or cover themselves with ashes. This was a visible, outward symbol of the invisible, inward pain that was being experienced. It felt like something destroyed, burned up, gone forever.
There is, deep in our souls where we can barely, yet surely perceive it, a feeling that something is off. A feeling that there’s a way of being, especially of being together here on earth, that we’ve lost. That we’re supposed to experience love, peace, joy and freedom — in our own hearts and in our relationships — but it feels out of reach.
We see it evidenced in the epidemic of deaths of despair in our nation. Our life expectancy is declining because we’re killing ourselves in our loneliness, isolation, depression, and division. And those of us who are surviving, or even thriving in many ways, still feel the effects as loved ones and neighbors struggle. We want to help. We wish there was more we could do. We mourn and feel the pain deeply. But we don’t know where to start.
What if finding that peace and freedom is possible, not just for ourselves but for our communities and our nation? What if the only way to truly find it is to seek it, together? What if the two are inextricably linked? We know we aren’t meant to be alone. But there’s so. much. brokenness. In our own hearts. In relationships. In the world. How can it be possible?
This is, of course, a deeply complex problem. But on this Ash Wednesday may I suggest that there are many small but profound steps we can take, even now. Jesus pointed us to one. In Matthew chapter 4, verse 17 we read that he began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Do not miss what Jesus does here. He joins repentance and the nearness of the kingdom.
Perhaps as we look inward and repent, mourn, recognize the death of the things we’ve done wrong — to others and to ourselves — we will find, instead of guilt and shame, a freedom that is only available when we’ve fully recognized the depth of the bondage. A freedom that is found most fully when we allow the nearness of the kingdom to sink all the way down into our souls.
And so I say, to myself and to all who will listen today, “Repent! There is freedom on the other side!”
Grace and Peace,