Honesty is what kick-starts the cycle of grace. When the process is working well, it’s almost instantaneous. We sin, and the Holy Spirit lets us know. Whoa, hold up a sec. Run it back—let’s talk about that one. We level with ourselves and God—I see it—and repent—I did it. We are immediately forgiven; our minds are renewed and spirits strengthened by the process. This swiftness is not a glitch in the Matrix. It is the system itself, the way we were designed to live, and thank God for it.
The Lenten season is a purposeful slowing-down of this instant process of grace. For 40 days we meditate on repentance and prepare for Easter, where we celebrate the forgiveness and new life that Jesus secured for us. By elongating the cycle, we’re invited to reflect on its component parts, like looking at a butterfly under a microscope.
Ash Wednesday helps us start this process at the beginning. On this day we remember step one, the step of honesty. My sin. I see it.
What in the World Is Going On?
This seemingly small step grounds us in reality. It forces us to shut down the hype machine of Best-Life-Now, Heaven-on-Earth Christianity wherever its gears may be grinding. We lay aside the optimistic spin, the wishful thinking, the high-flown rhetoric about what is actually happening in the world. And we join together, all of Christianity, for a moment of real honesty.
We see it. We see that things are going wrong out here. Our systems are failing. People are hurting. And we’re to blame, all of us. All fall short, all fall down.
We see, in essence, that we’re surrounded by ashes.
Ashes on the earth: ethnic rivalries, oppression, organized crime, dictatorships, racism, unfair trade, consumerism, bloodshed, poverty, human trafficking, abortion.
Ashes in our lives: broken relationships, squandered chances, lost opportunities, hurtful words, abuse, regrets, depression, moral failure, doubts, loneliness, insecurity, death.
Ashes everywhere. Sin has ruined everything, broken the human condition beyond our own repair. It has tainted the world so that the cup of earthly sweetness is laced with its bitter flavor.
So we put ashes on our foreheads. We mourn. We lament. We grieve the greatest losses—the loss of the world we could have lived in if it didn’t belong to us, and the loss of the life we could have had if we weren’t who we are. We form the ashes into a cross—our way of confessing that it was our sins that nailed our God to a cross. And we admit that only one thing can save us now: this same cross, by which God ransoms us and forms us into his image from the only thing we have to offer, these ashes that we lift up to him by the handful.
Speaking the First Word
There will be a time at the end of these 40 days when we will celebrate. Isaiah 61 says, “He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come. . . . To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes.” We will shout “Hallelujah!” Praise the Lord! How great is our God who trades beauty for ashes with us, for no other reason than that he is a loving Father and we are treasured children. This is our promise. Just as resurrection stepped from the open tomb, beautiful new life will grow from ashen places, on this earth and in our hearts, both now and in the future.
But all that is ahead of us, and the point of Lent is not to hurry. The butterfly is going nowhere. On Ash Wednesday, we go back to the beginning and stay until tomorrow. Our ashes speak the first word, the one of honest need that is the foundation of everything that comes after: “Hosanna!” Lord save us.
Drew Larson serves on the editorial and development team at InterVarsity.