I love Ash Wednesday, but it’s pretty predicable. Knowing me, I love it in part because it’s predicable. Every year, across Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian et al churches, there is the same reading from Matthew. There is the same imposition of the ashes of last year’s palms. There is the chanting mantra, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Only, I didn’t hear that this year. Instead, the priest said the other line that can be said while administering ashes: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe it was because annually I mumble something about ashes and dust not being the same thing. Maybe it was his upbeat Colombian accent. But I really loved hearing something different. And it stuck with me all day.
Jesus proclaims the phrase after he returns from the desert. John the Baptist had been arrested. Jesus, after being baptized, retreated into the desert. He returns and says that the time John prophesied about has arrived. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” [Mark 1:15] He goes on to gather disciples and work miracles.
The 40 days of Lent reflect the 40 days Christ spent in the desert, a time of penance and denial and fighting temptation. But what was Christ’s message after his time in the desert? Repent, and believe the gospel. So Lent should be leading us to that conclusion as well.
Often I think of following Jesus as a choice. We like the guy so we try to emulate him. He extends a warm invitation to be part of the tribe. But it’s not really like that. It’s not a warm invitation; it’s a command. He’s drawing a line in the sand, and we choose to radically change our lives or endure the consequences. Jesus welcomes all into his fold, no matter who they are, but they still must turn from sin. It’s not supposed to be easy. But it is worth it, in the end. That’s what makes “Repent, and believe the Gospel” such a great Ash Wednesday motto.