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Ash Wednesday: Broken & Grateful

explanation of ash wednesday; what does ash wednesday mean to you

I grew up in a family that observed Lent and viewed it as a very important season of the year. Though I've been taking part in Lent my whole life, it hasn't been until the past couple of years that I've really started to understand what the season is really all about. 

Lent is the (approximate) six week season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. Tradition has it that it is a time to reflect and prepare for the the risen Jesus. The main components have been prayer, fasting, repentance, and acts of sacrifice. All acts that are intended to draw us out of ourselves and point us to Christ. 

Lent has become more widespread in many Christian circles, and dare I say it has almost become "trendy". I am so thankful that more people are becoming aware of Lent because I think it is a beautiful season that can teach us so much. But in the trendiness that has come with its' recent popularity, I think a lot of the meaning behind Lenten traditions has been lost. I would like to revisit a couple of those traditions by starting with an examination of Ash Wednesday.  

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and if you were to attend a traditional Ash Wednesday service, a priest or pastor would spread ashes in the shape of a cross on your forehead while saying the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Certain Christian circles have criticized this tradition saying that we shouldn't wallow in our sinful nature; that we should instead focus on thanking God for his mercy and redemption. Critics argue that by focusing on the fact that we are dust, we are focusing too much on ourselves and not enough on Christ. I think this is a misconception that needs to be addressed.


When they spread ashes on my forehead this past Ash Wednesday and repeated those words "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return", I realized just how uncomfortable I was with that phrase. We don't like to be told that we are simply made of dust and will one day return to dust. We like to be told that we matter, that we are important, that we are filled with purpose. We are all of those things. But we are none of those things without Christ. Without Christ, we are dust; we are nothing; we can accomplish nothing. The raises we get, the awards we receive, the big house we own, and the Twitter followers we have will not ultimately matter. We all know this, but how many of us know this. 

It's an uncomfortable feeling. Believe me, I know. 

The cross emblazoned on my forehead reminded me that I am a sinner, a sinner that has deeply grieved God. Honestly, sometimes I think we forget this. We know we are sinners, but we often think about it flippantly "I'm a sinner God, but thanks for saving me!" By sitting with ash on my forehead and the thought that I am only dust, I realized just how much of a sinner I was. I came to understand that many of my thoughts, actions, and intentions deeply grieve the heart of my God.

My realization of my deeply sinful nature brought me to a place of  genuine repentance

I think it's hard to be truly repentant if you don't really recognize the extent or gravity of your sin.  I think it's hard to be truly repentant if you're apologizing to God while simultaneously thinking "well at least I don't do such and such". Often I don't think I realize the gravity of my own sin, because I am rationalizing it by thinking, "well at least I don't do that". It doesn't work that way. Sin is sin, and all breaks the heart of God whether it's gossiping about our friend or cheating on our spouse. But as I sat in the dimly lit church confessing my sins, I realized I wasn't to sit here here with ash on my forehead and wallow in pity or shame. Literally speaking, I couldn't sit and wallow because it was my turn to walk up and receive Communion. And as I stood up, it hit me. I finally understood. 

Here I was, stained with ash, marked as a grieved sinner, about to walk up and be welcomed into the presence of Almighty God. He knows the darkest places of my soul, yet still offers a feast of love, mercy, and grace. He sees the ash on my forehead, He sees my sin, yet He longs to wrap me in His arms and wash me clean.

Sitting with the feeling of nothingness allowed me to see that, yes, I am nothing but God is everything. God has been, is, and always will be everything. My ashen forehead had given me a glimpse of the extent of my sin, but Communion showed that the God of everything knows me, wants me, and cherishes me, despite the ashes on my forehead. What a gift! To know that the God of everything wants you... this understanding led me to a place of deep and genuine praise that I have never been before. 

Tears slipped down my face as I watched churchgoer after churchgoer marked by ash walk up and receive Communion. It was the most beautiful picture of redemption I have ever witnessed. Here we are- a people marked with sin, mistakes, and regret. And here is a God loves us SO much that He invites us over and over again to come into His presence so that He can wash us clean.

the god of everything knows you wants you and cherishes you

You may have heard this all before. It's easy to read words on a page and not let them touch your heart. But I encourage you to spend some time meditating on this today. We need not remember our sin to feel a sense of shame; instead, we remember our sin to lead us to gratitude for what God has done and who He is

Struggling with the fact that I am only dust, makes me all the more grateful for my Savior. My Savior who welcomes his broken daughter with open arms and puts her back together again and again and again. I choose not to wallow in my brokenness, but rather let the realization of my brokenness lead me to a place of gratitude and thanksgiving. I truly believe that we cannot effectively reach a place of deep gratitude without first recognizing the depravity of our own souls. 

"If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won't he leave the ninety nine others in the wilderness and search for the one that is lost until he finds it?" - Luke 15:4

You are that lost sheep. I am that lost sheep. But the Man went and searched for us, found us, and now we are part of the ninety nine. We were lost, but now we are found. The Good Shepherd has brought us, the wayward sinful sheep, home. And for that we are to praise His holy name.

What does Ash Wednesday mean to you? Did you grow up observing Lent? 

{Linking up with Tuesday Talk over at Sweet Little Ones Blog and Weeks End over at Oak + Oats}
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  1. I'm glad that you observe lent and I'm glad God uses it to remind you of important truths.

    I agree with you that we so often forget that we are dust. It's easy to do. I also think that you are right when you say it makes people really uncomfortable. I think a big part of the gospel in general makes people uncomfortable. It isn't an easy thing to take in that we are sinners and deserve hell BUT once we get to Christ it is so good from there!

    I ado agree that lent seems to be more trendy now. Growing up I rarely heard of anyone taking part in lent unless they were Catholics. Now I feel like so many people participate in it.

    I'm curious as to what type of church you grew up in? I hope that isn't too weird of a question. I just haven't heard of many churches partaking in lent like you described.

  2. "We areall of those things. But we are none of those things without Christ. Without Christ, we are dust" PREACH!

    you're right, it's something that we really don't deeply think about often! our sin & grace - the gravity of both. we are MORE sinful than we realize! and yes, we are MORE loved than we realize also! the more we come to understand the depth of our sin, the more amazing His grace appears!!! and yet we still can't comprehend it all!!!

  3. Thanks for sharing your heart on the topic of lent! So glad that it's more than just a tradition for you! I didn't grow up in the church at all, so no - I definitely never did anything for lent!

  4. Oh wow Caroline I didn't know that... have you shared your story on your blog?? I would love to read it/hear it!

  5. I TOTALLY agree! If we only knew how sinful we are but then remembered just how loved we are I think we would live differently! I wonder if we'll fully comprehend His love and grace in heaven... I can't wait for the day! :)

  6. You're totally right- I think the Gospel can be uncomfortable because there is the very real side of hell. But like you said, once we get to Jesus it is SO good! And without the very realness of hell, I don't think the goodness and mercy of God would seem as great!

    It's not a weird question- I'm usually not very specific about my church background because I've gotten a lot of really poor reactions so I don't specify unless asked. I grew up going to Catholic Mass on Saturday nights, a Protestant service on Sunday mornings, and a Messianic Jewish service whenever we were in Denver (where the Messianic church was). It's not exactly a common way to grow up so it's not a weird question at all. :) So, my background with Lent specifically is more from a Catholic perspective. The church that I'm a part of now (there's been two different churches the past 3-4 years but they are very similar), would probably be classified (if we have to classify churches :( ) as Protestant but incorporates liturgical elements including Communion every week etc. It's been a blessing of a church and perfect place to land with my church background :)

  7. So beautiful to hear your heart on this! I grew up in the church but we never did the ash stuff or services.

  8. this is beautiful! Lent was and is still an important part of the year for my family as well... I decided to start adding positive things into my life during this season {like praying and volunteering} instead of removing.

  9. I went to a couple different churches growing up and one did the ashes and the other didn't. It's definitely interesting to have grown up and seen/learned both perspectives! :)

  10. Ahhhh totally girl!! The past couple of years I've started to add something too because sometimes I think that's easier (and better in some cases) than removing something. Awesome to hear that Lent has always been a part of your life too! :)

  11. Your writing is beautiful, and I love what you said about having to recognize that you truly are a sinner before you can accept grace! Amen to that!! I've struggled with lent because it's not something I'm used to/I thought it was ritualistic and empty, but this post and my recent conversations with others have shown me just how meaningful it is to have a whole season to reflect on Jesus' redemption on the cross.

  12. That is one of the most interesting church backgrounds I have ever heard of. I would imagine that you gleaned a special piece of truth from each place.

    Was there one church that you feel taught the gospel more than the others?

  13. That's an interesting question, and I guess I don't know if one taught it more- they just taught it differently. In a Catholic Mass they have a reading from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel each week but the sermon tends to be shorter and mostly focused on the Gospel reading. Our Protestant Church and the Messianic Jew one was more similar in the sense that they would go through a smaller portion of Scripture and go into more detail. So I wouldn't say more from one church or the other, just different approaches. And regardless of church, I think I learned most about the Gospel at home with my parents.

  14. I think a lot of the same people have felt how you have felt about Lent (that it's ritualistic and empty); I would even say that at a point in my life I probably would have agreed. It's definitely something to be explored deeper because like I said- I've been observing it my whole life and am just now understanding the beauty of it. I'm glad that this post and your conversations with friends has helped you to understand it better! I've got a few more posts in the works explaining some other aspects of Lent that you might like :)

  15. Can't wait to read them! And I'm glad you didn't judge me for my cold cynicism ;)

  16. Haha definitely not! I've been in the same boat :)


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