Yes, I do mean celebrate. For us who are the inheritors of the past few centuries of popular, western Christian thought and theology, we tend to look at Ash Wednesday as a day of mourning and weeping and gnashing of teeth. To be fair, the tone of the day is certainly subdued and introspective. Ash Wednesday is most definitely a day devoted to considering our way of life, weighing the justice and injustice of our own thoughts, words, and deeds, and indeed, what we have not done. Ash Wednesday is a day about my sins; there are no two ways about it, but it is inappropriate to focus solely on our individual life. No one exists in a vacuum. We only exist in community.
The Way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way to the resurrection life to which we have been called is multidimensional. The Way of Jesus is a way of personal and communal transformation from the inhuman oppressors and automatons with hearts of stone to the truly human and wonderfully and fearfully made Beloveds of God with hearts of flesh. A major part of our humanness and belovedness is recognizing and living into the fact that we exist in relationship with ourselves, with God, with each other, and with the whole creation and that within these relationships there are personal and communal aspects to each one. On Ash Wednesday we intentionally set aside time to consider our relationship with each of these “others” in our lives and where we have personally and communally succeeded and fallen short, where we have been just and lived into the fullness of God’s call on our lives and where we have sinned and lost sight of the abundant life promised.
So why is this a celebration? Ash Wednesday is a celebration because it is the day of our hope in God and God’s hope in us. If God, as popular Christianity so often seems to say, truly thought we were beyond redemption, God would not have taken so much time on us: there would have been no Creation, no salvation for Noah through the flood, no liberation from bondage in Egypt, no calling the people and kings of Israel back to the Torah, and God would have forgone the trouble of bringing the exiles home from Babylon. And for us Christians, there would have been no reason to show us the fullness of the Holy in a human life in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We certainly hope in God and with good reason, but God also hopes in us.
The preceding list of Salvation History, the record of God’s saving deeds, shows us that God does care for us and indeed wishes our liberation and salvation, not just from the spiritual bondage (again as popular Christianity postulates the only purpose in being a Christian is to go to ‘heaven’), but also from the bondage and exile in this world and its oppressors, the new Egypts and the new Babylons we make here and now. When we see God act in our personal and communal lives, we learn to hope in God, but it also shows us that God hopes in us. When we remove the Pharaohs and Caesars from our lives, we fulfill our promise to be faithful to God and to follow Jesus on the Way. God sees and knows that we are capable of turning, or as they say in the Bible “repenting”, and returning to the Way. God puts all the literal hope of the whole universe in us.
And so on a day that many of us were raised to mourn, let us instead celebrate. Today, when we “hear God’s voice” let us “harden not our hearts.” Let us recognize our sins, individual and communal, own them, repent, make restitution where possible, and be transformed, again individually and communally. When we have done this work, the work of repentance and reconciliation, we will see just how free we truly are. We will celebrate Ash Wednesday.