Today is the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. Since early in Christian history, people have been anointed with ashes as a sign of repentance from sin. In ancient Jewish tradition, people tear their clothes and wear ashes or dust on their faces as a sign of mourning. In Christian tradition, we ask for forgiveness for our sins and then we are marked with ashes and the reminder that “you are dust and to dust you shall return”. While this is a solemn day, it is not necessarily sad. In our tradition, where we ordinarily don’t make “individual confessions” as are done in the Roman Catholic church, Ash Wednesday is one of the few days of the year that we examine our consciences, and are reminded of the failings specific to our own lives. We are also forgiven of our particular sins.
I think many people have the wrong idea about sin and confession. By the nature of our humanity, we are limited. We make decisions based on faulty ideas, incomplete data and less than pure motives. Sometimes, we just don’t know the right thing to do, or we feel incapable of doing what we believe to be right. If we want to grow and mature as Christians, I believe that we need to look at our failings clearly and lovingly. Clearly, so that we don’t try to fool ourselves or God. This would seem to be obvious, but we can’t fool God, and we can’t incorporate real forgiveness if we don’t come clean about the things we have done wrong. But then, we need to look at those failings lovingly. Most of us don’t get up in the morning with the intention to do evil; we fall into sin, and can’t figure out a way to get out. If we look at ourselves, as God does, with the eyes of love, we can figure out how we got from a good intention to a bad outcome.
Spiritual maturity comes from reflection on our actions and reactions. Why did that comment make us furious? Why did we feel compelled to steal? What series of missteps led us to a drunken accident? Unless we are willing to dig deep into our history and trace back the things that led us to sin, we will keep following the same well-worn trail to misery. That is the purpose of confession; not to make us feel bad, but to figure out how to live differently so that we feel good.
Ash Wednesday begins a journey, not a timed trial. By Easter, the circumstances of our lives will likely have changed, and we may need to look at a different set of challenges. But for right now, I encourage you to just sit quietly with yourself and God and see where you are. Even a GPS needs a few minutes to fix on your current location! Then you can choose what you would like to do during this season; where you would like to explore on this journey. No matter which of these spiritual practices you choose, followed faithfully, will lead to God.