I can't remember the last time I went to an Ash Wednesday service. But I went tonight, and I have a dark cross smudged on my forehead to show for it. I also have more than that, but what is more is internal, with no outer expression to show. So instead what follows are my thoughts on some of the things I heard tonight.
It was a solemn occassion. The lights had been dimmed, and a candelabra with three candles was lit. Tiny glasses of grape juice were lined up on the altar rail; communion bread on small plates placed every so often.
The pastor spoke of forgiveness. He read Psalm 103, a psalm of praise, a psalm of God's blessing and love. A psalm of God's forgiveness. We had the cross placed on our foreheads, ate the bread, and drank the grape juice. We sang "Amazing Grace". We left, greeting each other with a traditional greeting, "Peace be with you...and also with you". It was a short service, no more than half an hour.
To me, the idea of forgiveness seemed to follow from a sermon from a couple of weeks ago. We were challenged to forgive those that had hurt us the most. People can hang on to this kind of pain for so very long, weeks...months...years...decades. Yet it does not bring healing. It stays under the surface and festers, and nobody but the person harboring the pain can know what it does. Sometimes, it isn't even another person that has caused the pain. It is oneself.
But what does Psalm 103 tell us? That God forgives all of our iniquity (verse 3), that He redeems our lives (verse 4), that he will not keep his anger forever (verse 9). And then, amazingly, it says:
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. (verses 10-12)
God can forgive us. His love is so strong, so powerful enough that He can forgive what we do. Yet we have such a problem offering that same love to others and to ourselves. Perhaps Lent is not something you have ever given much thought to, have never observed. But perhaps it is also a time to try something new. Spend this time reflecting on God's love. Think about the freedom to be felt when it is time to let go of the hurt you have endured. And let it go. Put down the heavy burden that is dragging you down, and soar.