Ash Wednesday. In the Christian church, the first day of Lent, occurring 6 1/2 weeks before Easter. In the early church, the length of the Lenten observance varied, but eventually it began six weeks – 42 days – before Easter. But this provided only 36 days of fasting (because Sundays were not supposed to be fast days). So, in the 7th century, four days were added before the first Sunday in Lent in order to establish 40 fasting days, in imitation of Christ’s fast in the desert.
The custom of using ashes today is from an old ceremony. Christians who had committed grave faults were obliged to do public penance. On Ash Wednesday the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days, and sprinkled ashes over them which had been made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms,(1) the penitents were turned out of the holy place because of their sins, as Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience. They did not enter the Church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by doing penance for forty days and receiving sacramental absolution. Later on, the practice came to include ALL Christians in recognition that, “ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”(2)
With that as background, we hear again the tortured words attributed to David following his adulterous union with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband Uriah,(3) and finally the subsequent confrontation with the prophet Nathan where his sin was pointed out:(4) “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
With the ashes on our foreheads, our sin is quite literally “before” us, and we echo the Psalmist’s prayer. Ashes. The residue of a burned-out fire. Nothing would seem so appropriately symbolic of the less-than-spectacular state of humanity. Gray and lifeless, ashes make it clear that something is not right, that human beings have settled in the dust and settled for the worst.(5)
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James Harnish tells of a seminary professor who asked each new group of seminary students, “What made you feel that God was calling you into the ministry?” And sometimes some poor, unsuspecting soul would say, “Well, I like working with people.”
The professor usually looked the student right in the eye and said, “George, you have not met many of the people you are going to be working with, have you? Some of them just are not all that nice.”(6) And we know why. That perennial feature of the human situation to which our lesson calls us — sin.
Clint McCann, in his work on the Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible notes, “Any good history book is mainly just a long list of mistakes, complete with names and dates. It is very embarrassing.” And this is especially true of the Bible. Israel’s story is a long list of mistakes. King David’s story is very embarrassing. So is the behavior of the disciples in the Gospels. So is the situation of the early church, as is painfully obvious in the letters of Paul. So is the history of the Christian church throughout the centuries. So are the denominational and congregational lives of the contemporary church. So are the details of our own life stories, if we are honest enough to admit it. In short, Clint writes, “Psalm 51 is not just about Israel or David, it is also about us! It is about who we are and how we are as individuals, families, churches — sin pervades our lives. It is very embarrassing.” That is the bad news. What could be more appropriate to consider at the beginning of Lent?
But I do not want you leaving here without the rest of the story. You see, Psalm 51 is not just about human nature; it is also about God’s nature. “Steadfast love…abundant mercy” are the phrases we encounter. And the good news is that God is willing to forgive sinners and is able to re-create people. Israel’s life as a nation is an example. David’s life is an example. Yes, sin is a powerful and persistent reality, but God’s grace is an even more powerful and enduring reality.(7) By the grace of God, a persistently disobedient people become partners with God in “an everlasting covenant.”(8) By the grace of God, dull and disobedient disciples of Jesus become known as those “who have been turning the world upside down.”(9) By the grace of God, Saul, the former murderer, becomes Paul, ambassador for Christ. And by the grace of God, you and I can be made CLEAN AND new as well. And THAT is good news indeed.