But today - in the grocery store - I got one of the more commonly asked questions - even by folks who have been church-goers their whole lives. Why is Ash Wednesday so important? What is it really about? The truth is, it's about a lot of things. And it has ancient roots - and a variety of interpretations. Like many parts of our tradition, it is the product of a faithful and lovely evolution. But the most obvious answer is the one that I gave today.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It stands out in the church calendar, along with Good Friday, as one of two days when we explicitly focus on repentance and forgiveness. The Church gets a bit of a bad reputation in pop culture - the generalization is that we're always "judge-y" - and we're always naming things as "sins." That's not always true - but on these two days, our of 365 in the year, we do place a special emphasis on our repentance.
It's not because we think people are bad. Or because we even have to do something - or get something right to earn God's love. Instead, it's because tradition has taught us to be a little realistic about human nature. We all make mistakes. We all get caught up in the wrong things. We all let life run away with us from time to time. We are all imperfect works-in-progress. We acknowledge this on Sunday morning when we say a corporate confession. We acknowledge it in the Daily Office, too. But on this day in particular, we spend a little more time owning up to the imperfection within us -- not because we need to feel badly about ourselves, necessarily - but because looking at ourselves with realistic eyes helps us to do better. Taking an honest look, once a year, during the season of Lent, at who we are and what we do helps us to prepare for Easter. This reality check helps us to prepare for Christ.
We live into this day seriously - not because God doesn't love us - or because we should be ashamed, but because God does love us - and because God wants us to be free. To live lives that aren't bogged down by words like fear or shame. And the only way to live that life - and to realistically do that - is to work at it. So, on Ash Wednesday, we start a season together of working - of looking with realistic eyes at ourselves - and of seeking God in our neighbors and in the world around us.
It's a serious day - but a hopeful one, too. It's a bit like rolling up your sleeves before a big job -- something that has to be done, something that once it's done - will make things better.