Why Ash Wednesday?

Luke 4:1-13 (The Story of Jesus in the Wilderness)

What a sight? Our savior, bent over with hunger pains, his hand in the dust of the wilderness, his head hanging limp.

Why would we want to follow him there? Why would we take up fasting and preparation for 40 days? Of course, none of us will go into the wilderness or without food for any significant amount of time, but why mark this event with a special service? Why gather on a Wednesday to remind ourselves of our mortality?

The somber reflections on our own finite limits and our inevitable deaths is, to use the theological word, a drag, a serious bummer.

What about the wilderness is good news?

The route through the desert is not the path we prefer to take. It is dry, barren, lifeless, purposeless, it is chaotic and unorganized, it is not where you are supposed to be: productive, efficient, successful. When you find yourself in the wilderness you do everything you can to get out of it. You turn back to find out where you went wrong, or maybe you press on, head down legs moving quickly.

If it were up to us, we would never pass through the wilderness. So it’s shocking when we read that it was the Holy Spirit that drew Jesus there. And it is no different when we are the ones taken into the wilderness.

Ash Wednesday is not another excuse for Christians to indulge their guilt, to wallow in self pity, to convince themselves that they are not worthy.

One of my professors recently reflected on the temptation of Adam and Eve faced in the garden. He writes, “it was precisely our limited humanness that left us with the sense, I am not enough- paving the path for the slithering serpent to make the offer of a life without limitation. Somehow we are ashamed of our humanness. Humiliated when we fail. Disturbed when we can’t get it all done in a day.”

Ash Wednesday is an invitation into the wilderness to experience our humanness and the freedom that comes from being limited. The freedom of being dependent upon another. It will feel terrible at first. Oh, it will be terrifying-to face your own limits.

Fits of panic and anxiety, sweaty palms, heart racing.

It will feel like head hanging, hand in the dust of the wilderness, bent over with hunger pains.

But if you follow the spirit to the quiet open wilderness you will first hear silence. And then a still small voice saying…

You don’t have to be anything other than human.

You don’t have to be anything other than who you are.

You are enough.

To hear our Savior whisper those words is why we gather for Ash Wednesday, it is why we follow him into the wilderness.