Today, millions of men and women around the world will begin preparing for Easter by celebrating Ash Wednesday. Christians from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions will line up to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They will close their eyes as the minister scratches a cross of ashes onto their foreheads. They will acknowledge their weakness and ask God’s forgiveness.
As anyone who has ever celebrated Ash Wednesday can likely attest, the service is surprisingly popular. Its appeal, I think, lies in its counter-cultural message. It shares with us a truth that we are desperate to hear. It tells us that the God who created and controls the universe is good. It tells us that the world does not rest on our shoulders alone. It tells that we are unconditionally loved.
Modern American culture, as described by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise, tells us something different. It rewards us according to our accomplishments. It values us according to our achievements. Any failures can be catastrophic. Failures don’t just threaten our social or professional standing; they threaten our very identity and dignity. The result is a generation of men and women low on self-worth and high on anxiety.
As Ash Wednesday attests, however, there is room for imperfection in the Christian tradition. In fact, there is an assumption of imperfection.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder that no accomplishment or failure can add to or subtract from our God-given worth.
For those of us caught up in the relentless pursuit of perfection, Ash Wednesday offers immense and immediate relief. We can to admit our shortcomings without risking our dignity. We can confess our sins without losing God’s love.
Acknowledging our weakness and asking for forgiveness does not mire us in guilt. It washes us in grace.
Repentance, as epitomized in Ash Wednesday, does not destroy; it heals.
The Ash Wednesday service I attended at noon today was crowded. People were packed in the pews, standing and squeezed into the foyer. Some were in suits. Some in police uniforms. Some in scrubs. People of various ages, of various races. All burdened by the pursuit of perfection. All worried their worth was lost. All seeking salvation from their sins. And, in one voice they echoed the words of the Psalmist, “have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”