March 1, 2017
We didn't do it when I was young. Ash Wednesday was "too Catholic" for us independent Baptists. I was a teenager before I knew what those black smudges on the foreheads of some of my friends meant, and although I learned to lead Ash Wednesday services, we did so without the imposition of the ashes, if that makes any sense. Pastor Joe changed all that. He's a strange combination; he preaches in jeans and sport shirt, but is slowly leading us in a more liturgical direction. I could never bring myself to preach in anything except a suit. The move from robe to suit was a big step for me. But I digress.
Tonight I stood silently as Matt Slaven dipped his thumb into the ashes, made the sign of the cross on my forehead and intoned the ancient words, "Repent of your sins and believe the Gospel." Those words never cease to impress me with their brevity and clarity. We are called to do both. If I repent of my sins but do not believe the Gospel, my repentance becomes a downward cycle of recollection and guilt. Apart from the Gospel, repentance can only imprison me in the realization of my sin. On the other hand, believing the Gospel apart from repentance produces a casual, lackadaisical easy-believism that fails to take seriously the depth of the breach between ourselves and God caused by our sin. The Gospel is emptied of its importance and power if we don't know how to repent.
Those two phrases are inextricably linked together. Separate them, and the Good News ceases to be good. But together, they are the power of God. If I repent, I must believe the Good News of forgiveness. Therein is my hope. If I repent and believe the Gospel, I find the forgiveness and freedom I so desperately want and need. Tonight I am thankful for those ashes, but even more for those simple words, "Jim, repent, and believe the Gospel."