Hurts So Good: Our Dirty Little Secret on Ash Wednesday

We’re in trouble when we start feeling good about feeling bad. It happens frequently on Ash Wednesday. We file forward toward the pastor, who stands there with a dirty thumb upstretched, as if hitchhiking his way toward Holy Week. We take a knee for the finger-painting rite. Every brow is crisscrossed with the greyish fruit of fire.

As the liturgy unfolds, we have plenty to say about the law and sin. And we repent. Lord, do we repent. More sin than you can shake a stick at. We haven’t loved God like we should. We haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves. These are not your vanilla-flavored, every other yawning Sunday confessions. On Ash Wednesday we tend to lay it on thick. Get all personal.

And the thing is, we sort of get into it. “These confessions are good for my soul,” we say to ourselves. The more bad stuff we confess, the worse we feel about ourselves; and the worse we feel about ourselves, the closer we must be to God, right?

Let me let you in on a dirty, little secret: there’s something inside all of us that enjoys fessing up to wrongdoing, because we assume thereby we have repaired the bridge between God and us. And we couldn’t be more wrong.

The old adage, “Confession is good for the soul,” is true, but only half true. What is confession, after all? Nothing more than telling the truth. To confess, “I am a sinner,” or even specifically to admit, “I’ve been stealing from my company,” is no more a profound truth than saying, “There are clouds in the sky.” These are all simple facts. To confess, in the Christian sense, is to echo God’s words, to say back to God what he has already said to you. The Lord says, “You are a sinner. You’ve sinned in these particular ways,” and we confess, “I am a sinner. I’ve sinned in these particular ways.”

On Ash Wednesday, we’re being honest with God and with ourselves. And while honesty is praiseworthy, it does nothing to cross the chasm between us and the God against whom we have sinned. We can confess and feel terrible about our sins all day long, but none of that brings us any closer to the kind of healing we desperately need.

What is really good for the soul is not so much confession as absolution. If confession is us telling the truth about ourselves to God, then absolution is God telling us a truer truth about ourselves.

Confession says, “I have sinned,” but absolution says, “Your sin is no more.” But it’s better than that. Your sin doesn’t just vanish; it appears on the body of the man who bore that sin for you. It is peeled away from you and stuck to very soul of the one who, in your stead, bore not an ashen cross upon his forehead but a cross of wood upon his body. @@Christ’s cross crosses the chasm between you and God.@@ He repairs the damage. It is his confession that is good for your soul, for he confesses, “I love you. I lay down my life to save your own. I forgive you. I heal you. Mine you are, now and forever. In my scars are written the song of an undying love for you.”

As we sit in our pews this Ash Wednesday, feeling good about feeling bad, thinking that by my confession and repentance alone we are making things right between us and God, we are deeply and dangerously wrong. The cross of ashes upon our foreheads points us, finally, to the truth, because it betokens the Christ of the cross, in whom we are made deeply and beautifully right.

Because of him, and him alone, we learn to love Lent for all the right reasons. In Jesus we are reconciled to the Father, adopted as his children, and on our brows is written the very name of the Lord himself (Revelation 22:4).