Ash Wednesday’s one of those Christian traditions that’s always been a bit alien to me. It’s not a ritual I’ve ever been involved in; maybe actively so as I’d much rather focus on the grace of God than the sin of Matt.
Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m far from perfect. But I like my penitence to be private, thank you very much; I’m not keen on sackcloth and ashes, and I have no idea how King David had the guts to write something as raw and confessional as Psalm 51.
There’s the question of corporate repentance. A lot of people have been hurt by the church – through unChristlike attitudes, through the abuse of power, through shaming and shunning. And while it’s tempting to shake our heads and mutter “Not all Christians!”, the fact is we’re one body and we need to acknowledge where that body’s gone wrong.
So maybe that’s a role for Ash Wednesday. Individual repentance, ashes smeared on the forehead, is fine, but maybe we need to smear some ashes on the door posts of our churches too. It could also be an act of humility too – the church has wielded so much temporal power that it’s always good to pause and remember that we’re not perfect, we have fallen short of the glory, that our true power comes from the Holy Spirit, and that our organisations are just as much in need of God’s grace as our individual lives. Today’s ashes are last year’s palm branches of praise, which is a good reminder that our failings and our worship aren’t that far apart.
Because the fact is this: I can’t throw the Church under the bus. Denominations need to change, some organisations need to fall, but the church as the body of believers remains. I can’t walk away from that body as a whole.
But then we’re back to individual repentance. Preachers are fond of saying that the church isn’t buildings but people, so there we have it: Don’t spread hate instead of love. Don’t fiddle the accounts. Don’t abuse children, or cover up that abuse. Don’t get drunk on power. These things need to be confronted, dragged into the light, brought to justice.
And yet the ultimate message of Easter is resurrection, healing, grace. Don’t dwell in guilt – confront it, be penitent, turn onto another path, but we’re heading towards the Cross, towards the empty tomb. Forgiveness and mercy are central to the story – hope and healing are there for the taking; those ashes get washed away.