ash wednesday

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

It will be Ash Wednesday in just a few days. Like seemingly everything else these days, it will be different. You may participate through an online service or in a drive-through experience or by self-imposing ashes as you gather with others.

Many people – and you may be one of them – aren’t convinced they’re ready for a somber and deeply reflective Ash Wednesday Service, let alone the entire season of Lent. Given what’s going on in the world, they’re ready to jump straight to Easter and its message of hope that arises out of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  

But inconvenient as Ash Wednesday is right now, we still need to deal with it head-on – by getting absolutely real with God, others, and ourselves about sin. This may come as a shock since we don’t talk much about sin anymore. In fact, the word seems to have disappeared from our faith vocabulary. But the Christian faith has a tradition dating back to our Jewish forebears of the necessity of dealing with it. 

Dealing with sin is serious business, and involves a great deal of vulnerability and willingness to wade into the muck and messiness of our own sinful actions. It begins with being convicted by the truth that what we’ve done harms God and others. It moves on to confession and an articulation of telling the truth about ourselves, expressing deep regret, and vowing to make things right. It mandates repenting, which literally means turning around and heading in a new direction, with our words, attitudes, and actions. It necessitates, as much as possible, making things right with others so that God’s justice becomes real. It leads to being forgiven. And eventually – but not always or easily – it can bring about reconciliation. 

Sin, however, is not merely a personal matter. It is also corporate and has infected the very fabric of our nation – from how we treat each other to how we treat the most vulnerable. We need the Holy Spirit to help us deal with the reality of this kind of sin. There needs to be far less selfishness, anger, opportunism, hatred and demonizing, and a great deal more conviction, confession, repentance, making-right and transformation. It probably will be resisted. It will be painful. And it will involve us taking the risk of naming this sin, often in concrete ways. But it is how God transforms human beings from the inside out. And that should be something we always seek for ourselves and every other person.

It’s important to remember something about sin, whether it’s our own or corporate. Sin is never the last word. This means we don’t deal with sin on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent in a vacuum, uncertain what the outcome will be. We do it knowing that Jesus’ resurrection is far more powerful than the reality of sin. Ultimately, and somewhat paradoxically, this means dealing with sin – individually and corporately – can actually be a gift from God.

So, how about it – are you ready to be ashed?