Ash Wednesday marks the official beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent is the season when we collectively turn away from ourselves and toward the cross, confessing our sin and longing to be made new. Many of us have already been marked with an ashen cross, signifying the curse handed down to Adam and Eve as they were kicked out of Eden, from ashes you came to ashes you shall return.
We bear ash in the sign of the cross on our forehead to mark ourselves as mourners, as a people marked by death and fit for judgement. We bear ash on our foreheads to declare, in simple terms, that we are human and that we are wrong.
Amongst the “no” of judgement, there is a curious “yes” that this mark signifies. The confession of our humanity is also a confession that we are formed in the image of the Eternal. And the sign of the cross signifies that our God has not given up on us. He has made a way for redemption, for forgiveness, for our turning to mean something, and for us to be made new.
This is the nasty habit in the history of God that takes center stage. God has a long and well documented history of inviting the wrong type of people into forgiveness.
One story that is read today in the lectionary texts is of Jonah and the repenting king of Ninevah. Jonah, the prophet of God, had just finished delivering the world’s sorriest excuse for a sermon, consisting simply of the words, forty days and Ninevah will be overthrown! Overthrown? By who? For what? On whose authority? Worst. Sermon. Ever.
So of course the entire city dresses in sackcloth and covers themselves in ahes (customary mourning for that time). In spite of the obvious contempt of the prophet, the word of God does not come back void. And in case anybody missed out on the message, the king himself declared a public fast and communal mourning.
And the prophet was pissed.
Can you blame him for being upset? Whose inclusion into the gospel would it crush you to see? Whose repentance are you secretly (praying) against? Who would you least like to see at the dinner table? Who are you ashamed to be associated with?
Beware. God has a long and nasty history of forgiving the wrong people.
People like us.