Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar marks the beginning of Lent. The name is derived from the ancient practice of smudging the forehead with ashes as a sign of sorrow and recognition of human mortality. The period of Lent for the faithful has often includes fasting, the temporary denial of certain pleasures, and the dedication of time for reading scripture and prayer.
I want to suggest a reflective activity for Ash Wednesday as the starting point for your 2014 Lenten journey. It may be meaningful to reflect on the different actions and positions of the people associated with Jesus during the last days of his life. I divide them into four groups.
Group 1: The crowds celebrated the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem by laying their clothes and palm branches on the road and shouting enthusiastically. A few days later they raised their voices again demanding Jesus’ execution. They remind us that passions can be manipulated and public favor can be fickle. You are encouraged to consider the places in your life where the dominant culture and its values exercise a negative influence over your commitment to God’s rule in a broken world.
Group 2: There was a large group of followers who travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem. The 12 apostles formed the inner circle of this band of people. In the city of Jerusalem they were forced to face the entrenched power of religious and military leaders. After the night arrest and mock trials, most of the disciples went into hiding. Their actions remind us that it is difficult to live with courage and loyalty in times when the opposition is strong and the stakes are high. Our promises to follow Jesus may be compromised by our desire to protect your reputations and positions.
Group 3: This group is actually one man, Peter. In the upper room, Peter promised that he would not deny or desert Jesus. He stated that he was willing to die with Jesus (Mark 14.26-30). Within a few hours he protected himself by claiming that he did not know Jesus. Peter’s actions remind us that we too have the capacity for self deception and betrayal in regard to faith and relationships. The way we act in a crisis may not be consistent with our word of commitment.
Group 4: There were a group of women close to Jesus. They had supported his mission in Galilee and travelled with him to Jerusalem. They stood at the cross and watched him die. They later went to the tomb to anoint his corpse. On Easter Sunday they were told that he had been raised from the dead and then met with the Risen Lord. The women remind us that faith, courage and loyalty are often found among unexpected people who live on the margins and are seldom recognized by the church.
On Ash Wednesday, our reflections and prayers should be characterized by humility and honesty. We may need to acknowledge that in the past year we have been fickle rather than steadfast, weak rather than courageous, and prone to self deception in matching our actions to our words. Ash Wednesday may be a time for repentance in which we confess our tendency to compromise and to take the broad highway that leads to destruction. We may ask God for the grace during the Lenten Period to live our faith more courageously so that we embrace our calling to witness in a broken world through our words and deeds.