ASHPUNKRaulArboleda:AFP:Getty

This meditation on the Lenten season we enter today is worth reading in full. Money quote:

Ash Wednesday should be seen as standing guard over Lent, reminding us at its start of the core truth of Christianity: we must give up.

We must give up not this or that habit or food or particular sin, but the entire project of self-justification, of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, which is death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Give up! Give up, for you will not escape death.

The entire logic of the theology of glory, of all our Pelagian impulses, of all human attempts at mastery and control, are searched out and stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. All power, all money, all self-control, all striving, all efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death. Our return to dust is the looming fact of our existence that, in our resistance to it, provides a template of sorts for all the more petty efforts we make to gain control of our lives.

In this way, the repentance that takes place on this day also can be seen for what it is. The penitential rite is not a kind of shame inducing act of self-hatred. It simply is a recognition, and thereby acceptance, of our inability to love and do perfectly, which no amount of self-help strategies can change. It points to the utter gratuity of grace, its unearned, unmerited, even inexplicable nature. Repentence, then, is liberating.

On Ash Wednesday, our confession of sin really is saying, “we give up.” By repenting, we opt out of the logic that turns the good news of Christianity into another form of bondage, of accusation and moralizing. We do not, on this day at least, pretend to be anything other than the flawed human beings we are. And it is this very lack of pretending that is such a relief to sufferers weighed down by guilt. Ash Wednesday is a day for honesty. We no longer have to fear or elide the truth about ourselves.

(Photo: View of the sign of the cross on a man's forehead during Ash Wednesday's celebrations at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on March 9, 2011. The 40-day period of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, with Catholics around the world observing the season which culminates in Holy Week. By Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

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