Restoration’s Ash Wednesday service, like every Ash Wednesday service, feels somber and bleak. It’s dark and shadowy—so much about our typical Sunday service is turned upside down. There isn’t a buzz of anticipation, there is no happy conversation and catching-up with friends. The crowded feeling of presence is replaced by a conspicuous feeling of absence.
During the service, you receive ashes. As they are smudged on your forehead, you hear the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We recite the heartbreaking words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God…For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Then we pray the litany of penitence, a laundry list of all our sins, all the ways we have failed to live according to God’s plan.
It’s hard not to paint the scene as, well, depressing.
From the outside, one would be tempted to say that the purpose of the evening was to make you feel awful about yourself. In our self-esteem culture, it’s difficult to see the value of such an exercise.
Yes, Ash Wednesday acknowledges some difficult truths—truths that we spend most of our lives actively ignoring because on the rare occasions we brush against them, we draw back in fear. The truth that we are mortal—that our bodies will fail us in the end and we will die. The truth—so difficult to say out loud—that our lives haven’t gone according to plan and we are shot through with fears and regrets. If we didn’t have this day and this season intentionally set apart for our recognition of this reality, we might never have the courage to face these facts.
But that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t the whole story of our Ash Wednesday service and it isn’t the whole story of your life.
Here are the first ten words of the Ash Wednesday service: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”
Here are the last ten words of the service: “…at the last, we may come to his eternal joy.”
See, there are some hard truths that we are invited to confront on this day. We are invited into confession and repentance, fasting and faithfulness. But none of those realities can obscure the glorious bookend to the human story: you were lovingly created in God’s own image and there is no limit to what our God will do to bring us back to him.
This Ash Wednesday, it is right for us to feel sorrow, to feel the burden of our guilt before a holy God. But those feelings must not exist in isolation from the much bigger, much greater truth: our God is love and he restores.