Ashes and dust and repentance. This day speaks less of guilt and grovelling than of grace and God’s heartbeat of love which calls again and again “return to me.”
On this first day of Lent, many Christians wear crosses of ash on their foreheads, a reminder both of our own dustiness and fragility (“Dust you are and to dust you will return”) and a sign of repentance, an echo of the traditional wearing of sackcloth and ashes in times of mourning.
We mourn our sinfulness. But the Hebrew word translated "repent" means “to turn, to return.” Repentance goes far beyond contrition and sorrow to a double turning: away from sin and toward the Love that calls.
It is quite possible to wear the ashes, to weep, without actually turning to God.
“And they do not cry to Me from their heart
When they wail on their beds. . .” (Hos 7:14)
It is the turning that makes true repentance.
And I wonder, in years past have I given up chocolate because I’ve been afraid to give up myself? He makes the call clear:
“For love delights me, not sacrifice, and the knowing of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Though in this verse it has sometimes been translated "mercy," the word for "love" here is hesed, that most wonderful word used throughout the Old Testament to speak of God's love that never lets go (eg. Ps 136 "His hesed endures forever."). This is what God wants from us: that we love him loyally.
And the word too often translated with the weak English word "acknowledge," really means "to know." (The same is true in Proverbs 3:6 "In all your ways know Him, and He will make your paths straight.") This is what delights God: that we know him. It is, in fact, Jesus' definition of eternal life: that we know Him and His Father. (John 17:3)
Could I, during Lent this year, let my mourning be a mourning for the places I still hold onto being “my own?” Could I let the mourning drive me back into the arms of the One who has made me His, the One who never ceases to call me closer? Could my prayers in this Lenten period reflect the joy of turning as well as the sorrow over where I see I have not yet turned? “I am no longer my own, but thine!”
He calls on every page of the Bible, “Come back and let me love you."
And the loving, welcoming face of God shines upon us in blessing as we kneel at the foot of the cross, incontrovertible proof of His love strong enough to pierce sin's darkness.