Five weeks away, Ash Wednesday marks the official start of the 40-day Lenten season and is hallmarked by the placing of ashes on the foreheads of parishioners while saying the ancient words from Scripture, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Traditionally made by the burning of the palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday, the ashes symbolize our mortality as well as our sorrow over our sins. The practice harkens back to Old Testament days when God’s people wore sackcloth and ashes to visually show to God and those around them the depth of their repentance for their wayward behavior. The prophet Jeremiah called for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). Today wearing ashes on our heads in the shape of a cross becomes a reminder to us and a witness to others who see us wearing these ashen crosses that we firmly believe that though we will one day die, we know we will one day be made alive again forevermore, forgiven and free through the precious cross of Christ.
The Father’s arms are open wide.
As those words were woven into the lyrics and repeated throughout, the powerful meaning of that image filled me with comfort and confidence. No matter where I have been, what I have done, when I return to him in repentance, God’s arms are always open wide to receive me.
There is a moment in the youtube version of the song link below where the audience sings these words in unison, and I can feel the collective relief and unburdening in the people’s voices. Take a listen, if you have a moment here:
I am reminded of the scene in the story of the Prodigal Son when the father sees his wayward son from a distance and runs with arms open wide to embrace him. At the very heart of our relationship with God is a longing and desire to be wrapped in his embrace and surrounded by the peace, security and strength only he can provide.