Servants of God,
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
What do the “ashes” of Ash Wednesday, tattoos, baseball caps and bumper stickers have in common? Answer: They all have to do with an exterior expression of an interior priority or conviction. How so?
Everyone of us has a desire to impact our world. We all want to shape it. We do this in various ways. When we tell the truth and deal justly with other humans, we are sowing the seeds of responsibility, justice and love for neighbor. When we cheat at cards, fail to show up to work on time or lose our temper, we shape the world around us negatively by attempting to create a world where we are in control and above the law. We all know our own lives better than anyone else so we must constantly monitor our thoughts, emotions and actions to determine how we are impacting the world around us.
The Bible teaches us that since the fall of mankind in the garden, humans have been born into a world that needs redemption and restoration. Christians believe that history testifies to God’s grand plan to make a way for sinful humans to be forgiven and restored to right relationship with God. This of course, comes on God’s terms. We must recognize our brokenness and receive God’s healing reconciliation in the manner that God determines. God has chosen the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as the central event in human history. This is why proper worship and remembrance that teaches the importance of the incarnation of Jesus (think Christmas) and the proper worship and remembrance that teaches the importance of the substitutionary death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (think Easter) can be wonderful.
Because God is a holy and absolutely sinless being, His universe reflects His nature. In spite of sin, the universe remains a moral place and we all know it. There is no such thing as an honest atheist. Romans 1:18 & 19 make it abundantly clear that rebellious humans attempt to suppress the truth about God in “unrighteousness.” All humans know God exists because God has made it abundantly clear to them. It is woven into the warp and woof of the universe and that includes the recesses of the human heart. Humans created in the image of God cannot escape that they know life involves the reality of right and wrong. All that gets us at least as far as Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is a nodal mark on the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic, liturgical Protestant and many Evangelical churches. It initiates the season of Lent—a forty-day period of preparation for the proper observance and celebration of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is traditional to take the palm branches from the previous year’s celebration of Palm Sunday and burn them to create the ashes used in the ceremony. The priest or pastor applies the ashes to the forehead and normally reminds the parishioner: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The point of all this is to bring to mind the reality of death and subsequently the truth that without the sacrificial death and the resurrection of Jesus, humans are doomed to be eternally lost and cut off from God. Christians who take this “mark” do so both as a reminder to themselves and as a witness to others of the centrality of Jesus Christ in all of history.
And what, exactly, does this have to do with tattoos and bumper stickers and such? Well, just this. Humans are incurable witnesses. We can’t keep secrets with any consistency. We love to tell other people about the things we value. This is why Facebook and other such platforms are so popular. Of course, in our fallenness, we can misuse what otherwise would be a good thing.
Is it a good thing to wear an ash mark on the forehead on Ash Wednesday? It can be. Millions of Christians do while millions of others don’t. And that is Okay. The Bible tells us “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The context of this verse is that the Apostle is attempting to point out that Christians are free from the “training wheels” of the rule keeping that was observed prior to the cross. To go back into that life is to miss Jesus. Christians know that morality and rule keeping does not save us. In fact, we know that we are able to keep rules (think of them as divine instruction) only because we are saved. As regenerate people, led by God’s Spirit, we realize they are good and bring honor to God and blessings to humans. They shine the bright light of the holiness and greatness of God into a dark world.
What is inside us is going to come out—one way or another. It can manifest itself to the watching world via a baseball cap with the logo of the Kansas City Chiefs on the front. It might come out through a bumper sticker that says “My boss is a Jewish Carpenter” or it might announce “I love Ethel” via ink embedded in a man’s skin. A homeless man in Albuquerque told me that he asked me for a meal because he saw the symbol of the cross on my T-shirt. I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised that my T-shirt was a positive witness for Christ that day. I hasten to add that how I reacted to the man and his current condition was likely a far more important witness. I am (we are) responsible before the face of God for everything that comes out of and witnesses to the condition of my heart.
So, what about ashes on the forehead, tattoos and bumper stickers? For Christians they must all pass the same test. Does this glorify God and am I doing it in faith and to please the Lord Jesus Christ? I am certain that you are probably like me. As I have grown in Christ, I am more careful to try to present to the watching world a life that is consistent with and driven by an inner life of repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus. I want to be like the psalmist who prayed that the life he presented on the outside would be consistent with his thought life and that both would be pleasing to God.