"As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust."
Psalm 103:13-14 (ESV)
You don't need to observe Ash Wednesday. This isn't a command. There is no rule for it. In fact, as far as Church traditions go, it is a fairly late development-- and by late I mean around the 8th century.
But ashes have long been a symbolic part of YHWH worship.
- There were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30).
- They were also an act of repentance and turning toward God's face. Daniel says that he "turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes" (Dan. 9:3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21).
As with all spiritual practices, the practices themselves are not the point; the practices point to Jesus.
So, how does-- or, rather, how can-- Ash Wednesday, point us to Jesus?
Let it be an act of humility. Make yourself low before the Lord Almighty, the One who formed us from the dust.
Let it be a confession of mortality. The psalmist urges us to "number our days", to remember that we have limits, that we are finite, that we shall one day return to the dust (Ps. 90:3, 12). Kneel before the "Lord our God our Maker" (Ps. 95:6).
Let it be a time to repent. We do not confess our sins to make God gracious; we confess because we have found that God is gracious. We turn away from self-reliance and self-destruction, and we turn toward the God whose nail-pierced hands are ever and always open to us. Repentance is not about shaming us; it's about making us whole.
Let it be a time to receive God's grace. When we humble ourselves, we find we are met by God's grace (James 4:6).
So, no, you don't have to observe Ash Wednesday. You don't have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church-- for the past 1200 years-- and with the people of God-- for thousands of years before that!-- and humbly repent and seek God's face.
It is the beginnig of a fast season, Lent. Lent-- like every other season of the Church Calendar-- is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there's nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.
This an invitation. Spiritual habits like marking time by the Church Calendar can be a habitation for the Spirit, a way to make room for His work in us and in our churches. It is, as Peterson paraphrases Jesus' words, a way to "keep company" with Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30).
If you live in Colorado Springs, and would like to join us for New Life Downtown's Ash Wednesday service, here are the details (The Pinery at the Hill is at 775 West Bijou Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80905):