Repent, Relent: A Brief Meditation for Ash Wednesday

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel”

Man praying, with ashes
Licensed by Creative Commons (Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ)
I said those familiar words over and over this morning, as I rubbed ashen crosses on the foreheads and hands of dozens of Bethel students and employees. It’s Ash Wednesday, and I was one of the professors asked to participate in the morning’s chapel service. I’ve written before about this day’s complicated meaning, but this was the first time I’ve been the imposer of ashes, and not the imposed.

So the weight of the words felt different. Not just my own, I was helping others to contemplate their sinfulness.

In some sense, that’s not really a stretch. We don’t always talk about it in these terms, but I do think that part of what we’re doing in the Christian liberal arts is to help people confront the reality of sin — to face up to the deeds, words, and (especially) thoughts that keep us from loving God and our neighbors.

More than that: if we are truly “forming whole and holy persons,” then we are trying to help each other repent of those sins: to turn from paths that offer nothing but death and instead choose the abundant life that is found in Jesus Christ.

But as we read familiar words from the prophet Joel earlier in the service, I found myself thinking about the other turn that had to happen before we could repent:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.

Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

We turn to God with all our heart, but only because “He may turn.

We mark Lent because God relents.

I know that Lent actually derives from a word for spring, perhaps even having a relationship to the increasing length of days in March. But I took enough years of French that I can’t help but see another meaning: lent is French for slow. It’s a time when we slow down (ralentir, en français) from the distractions of our busy lives in order to understand more fully what it means that God is “slow to anger and abounding in love.”

May that be your Lent: as the days lengthen, may you slow down long enough to repent, and so believe the Good News that God has relented.