What is Ash Wednesday about?


Ash Wednesday, 2020. Nigel Bunce

Image from www.anglicanjournal.com

On Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent. For forty days, excluding Sundays, we will follow Jesus from his ministry in Galilee towards Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and crucified. Inevitably, this places a pall of gloom over the season of Lent, which begins today. But we know that the culmination of those forty days is the glory of Easter.

The words that we will recite after this homily invite us to observe (and I quote) “a holy Lent by self-examination, prayer and fasting.” We will then recite a Litany of Penitence, in which we confess to various faults in our lives. The old Prayer Book described then thus. “Things we have left undone that we ought to have done, and things that we have done which we ought not to have done.” 

We will not live for ever

Ash Wednesday also calls us to remember that we are mortal.  We combine these two ideas at the imposition of ashes. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” because ashes are an ancient sign of repentance. In the story of Jonah, the people of Nineveh were so keen to repent of their sins that they covered their heads with ashes.  They dressed in sackcloth, and even did the same to their animals.

I have not gone back on my usual theology. I still believe that we human beings are basically good and made in God’s image. However, we sometimes we fall short of our ideals. But Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to remember the darker side of our humanity. We think about what confession and absolution mean to us personally – but not to fill ourselves with guilt or self-loathing.

Why we say prayers of confession

Unlike Roman Catholics, Protestants normally say confessions together, rather than as individuals. In these prayers, we say that we are truly sorry and that we earnestly repent. After that, the priest (in the Anglican tradition) offers absolution. To be technical about it, the priest does not forgive the sins of the people. Only God can forgive. The priest merely transmits the words. For example, “Almighty God have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins,” and so on.

But the Absolution means nothing unless we are truly sorry and repent earnestly. Repentance is more than being sorry. It implies the sense of turning around. In other words, we promise not to repeat the same mistakes – or at, least, to try not to. Otherwise, the Absolution is what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer called “cheap grace”. He called it, “forgiveness without requiring repentance”. It is, said Bonhöffer, merely a grace that we bestow on ourselves.

God’s forgiveness is unconditional

But let’s assume that we are truly sorry for some misdeed or other. In that case, we believe that God’s forgiveness, as given in the Absolution, is unconditional. God has wiped the slate clean. So next week, there is no need – in fact it is quite inappropriate – to dredge up that old sin from previously. Either our sins are forgiven or they are not. And if they are not, there would be no point in the confession.

Remember what Jesus said to the woman who had been caught in adultery: “Go on your way and sin no more.” Jesus clearly wiped the slate clean, but he also expected that the woman’s behaviour would change. 

What is a Litany of Penitence?

In a few minutes, we will say together the Litany of Penitence. A litany is simply a form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations, each followed by an unvarying response. Today’s litany reminds me of the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur. On that day, the people recite a long litany that contains a huge number of sins.

The idea is not that each person will have committed each of these sins during the past year, or even that anyone in the community has. Rather, the litany represents the possible failings that we have as human beings. It names sins that we might have been tempted to commit because of that humanity. So when in our litany of forgiveness you come across a petition for which you think indignantly, “I didn’t do that!” the response has to be, “Well, you could have.”

Some people argue that confession is unnecessary, because God already knows our sins. This is true, but irrelevant. Confession is not at all about God finding out whether we have been – in the words of the Christmas song – “naughty or nice.” It is about our own acknowledgement of our shortcomings. We cannot just say, “Well God knows all about my sins, and God forgives them.” It is not about God. It is about us.

Confession is sacramental

As a sacrament, confession has the usual symbolism of an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace. The outward sign – for both corporate and individual confession – is the Absolution, offered by the priest (but remembering that the priest is not forgiving the sins). The inward grace is the reconciling of the person concerned to God, the knowledge that the slate has indeed been wiped clean.

To wrap up, I invite everyone, including myself, to begin a holy Lent by self-examination and prayer, even if we do not all do fasting (I do not count giving up chocolate as fasting, but that’s just me). May we all strive in these weeks till Easter to make a special effort to make sure, when we say that we are truly sorry and we humbly repent, that we really mean it. It is not easy. But neither are most things about being disciples of Jesus Christ.