There's a lot of superficial evangelicalism going around.
Cheap grace kind of stuff. It's not worth your time.
It's not why Christ died.
Ash Wednesday is one option that helps us escape the clutches of superficial evangelicalism and grasp the enormity of Christ's sacrifice and resurrection. According to Robert Webber, it's been around since "the fifth century" (Worship Old and New, Robert Webber). It's an option that's been offered by the church for sixteen centuries that helps us "get" the spirit of our faith and how we are too interact with and live in this hurting world.
Ash Wednesday begins a journey that has some heaviness and somberness to it. Remember that day described in Luke 9:51? We're told that Jesus gathered his courage and "set out for Jerusalem." This is no long journey with a holiday at the end. Ash Wednesday is the start of a trek that is going to pass, in 4o days, into the darkness of the cross and the crucifixion. Our Savior is going to bear a heavy, heavy burden because of us. Our conviction is that, having gotten off track, we are on a path that is unavoidably heading toward death and destruction. Except God, through the death of Christ, intervenes and rescues us. There's a heaviness in the air knowing that I have contributed to the pain and suffering of my Savior.
But there's also hope riding in the currents of the air. The journey begun on Ash Wednesday is not going to end at the cross. Resurrection is around the corner. Death and heaviness is going to be swallowed up by life, more life, and more life still. There's a lot of mystery attached to the polarities of this journey: mortality and immortality, alienation and communion, home-leaving and homecoming, death and life.
What about the first day? Ash Wednesday. Maybe it's good to dab a little ash on our forehead, or on our hand, and remember that we are mortal beings, dust returning to dust. Maybe it's a good thing in a world of hype and fantasy to remember exactly who we are. Maybe it's a good thing to go without food for a day and remember the monumental suffering our Savior is going to endure--for us. Robert Webber says Ash Wednesday "calls us back to the basics, back to the spiritual realities of life. It calls us to put to the death the sin and the indifference we have towards God" (Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year, Robert Webber). These two things--ash and fasting--offer a way out, at least for a day, from the clutches of mind-numbing, faith-deadening superficial evangelicalism that costs nothing, asks nothing of us, and leaves us living exactly the way we did before "accepting" salvation.
Is that all? That might be enough. But maybe it's a way out of shallow, meaningless faith at a another level. As we ponder the journey of our Savior, for those of us who are rich Christians, a little sacrifice and suffering, for at least one day, may be an invitation to explore what our brothers and sisters experience every day who have barely enough food to live on. The statistics are staggering. Every 15 seconds, a child dies of hunger or related causes. And I find myself complaining because today I'm feeling a little hungry?! Maybe this day helps me realize that I've been blessed with much not for my own comfort, but to be a blessing. Robert Webber, again, says Ash Wednesday and Lent is a season that calls us to "put to death the sin and indifference we have towards...our fellow persons" (Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year, Robert Webber).
If it does this, then maybe Ash Wednesday is that gentle nudge that helps us see and escape the things that block our awareness of God and our neighbor. Maybe, in reality, Ash Wednesday is an escape plan from a kind of faith that is inconsequential to a faith that more and more alive every day.