An Ash Wednesday meditation:
Tonight I will be among those Christians who go to church and receive a smudge of ash on their foreheads.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the pre-Easter season of Lent in Western Christianity. Lent is a season of penitence. But too many people think of penitence as merely regret. In fact, the ashes represent a coming to terms with reality: mortality.
The two ways of seeing penitence show up in the interpretation of Job 42:6:
Wherefore I abhor [myself], and repent in dust and ashes (KJV).
As the KJV helpfully shows, there is no object for abhor. It supplies the word “myself”. Is that what it really means? Is repentance a kind of self-hatred?
The New American Standard Bible translates:
Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.”
The implied object here is words that Job has spoken. In the context this makes sense.
The Book of Job contains a lot of pretentious untruths spoken by Job and his friends. But by the end of the book there is a reckoning with reality. Job is mortal and his understanding is limited. When he was talking, he did not know what he was talking about.
Now he has experienced the mysterious, awesome, and holy presence of God. His attempts at explaining life do not compare. So he basically says, “Shut my, mouth.”
Those of us who talk or write, especially those of us who speak of God, need to acknowledge that we do not have a God’s-eye standpoint from which to speak. It is not that we should abhor ourselves. Even Job’s friends, who uttered some very wrong and harmful things about God, still have God’s forgiveness available to them (Job 42:7-8). They need to make a burnt offering. Ashes again.
When your forehead gets marked with ashes, the traditional words that go with it come from the announcement of the fate of Adam in Genesis 3:19, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
This does not single out anyone as particularly sinful. It does not call for you to abhor yourself or hold yourself in contempt. Rather, it recognizes the reality of our common fate. It implies the smallness and shortness of human lives. But it does so in the context of the greatness and eternity of God.
I experience Job-like moments when I would prefer to retract everything, to just shut up.
But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity
(Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound).
But life, duty and the shortness of life itself call for us to speak. Sometimes our speaking even helps others to, Job-like, experience themselves small and God big.
We speak knowing that we only know in part, and that our speech is subordinate to a Word of God that links to a history and a community. Only this over arches the ashes of our individual lives.