I have to be honest. . .I'm not so sure about this Ash Wednesday thing. Not even that sure about the whole Lenten season.
Imagine you really really really really love somebody. So you buy them a really costly gift. More costly than anything you've ever purchased. But you love them, so it's worth it.
Imagine they open the gift, and they love it. They're overwhelmed by it. They can't say "thanks" enough. You can see their joy, and it makes you happy. And over the coming weeks, as they tell the story to their friends, as they show off the gift and gush about your generosity, it makes you happy. To see their joy and feel their appreciation.
But then. . .imagine they start focusing on that generosity piece. In fact, they stop really thinking about the gift, and instead spend all their time talking about your generosity. Wouldn't that bother you just a bit? You didn't give them the gift just so they could perpetually tell you how wonderful you are (well, if you did, your motives would be suspect).
And then. . .imagine it's not just your generosity they keep mentioning. They start harping on how they didn't deserve it, that you were too generous, that somebody like them isn't worthy of this gift. Wouldn't that start to grate on your nerves? You gave them the gift out of love, and your love proves they are, in fact, worth the price of the gift. I'm sure a momentary "Oh, you shouldn't have!" is appropriate. Even a couple "no, really, it's just to expensive"s wouldn't be out of the question.
But suppose, a year later, around the anniversary of the gift, your beloved starting acting morose. A little too serious. Somewhat sad. And when you asked why, they told you, "I'm just remembering how expensive that gift was, and how I'm not really worthy of such a gift from such a wonderful person." And then. . .they did it year after year after year. Always going on and on about the cost, the price, and how a dirty, unworthy, shameful person such as they didn't deserve that kind of gift. How amazing you were, that you would give a little wretch like them such a precious gift.
I know, I know. Maybe this isn't the overall purpose of Lent. But isn't it what it often becomes in our little corner of the world, our little Christian campout? Doesn't it often become a reflection on the heavy price paid by God, and our unworthiness of that gift?
Too much of our theology and practice came of age in a medieval age of kings and emperors and serfs and vassals. In that world, should the king bestow you with a gift, the only proper response was deference, reflection of the amazing generosity of the king to stoop in such a way as to offer such a blessing to an unworthy little worm. For ages stories would be told and songs sung of the generosity of the king, that one of such a high station would give gifts to lowly peasants.
But that's not the biblical story. The biblical story is "How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God." When I give my daughters a gift, I do appreciate a little gratitude on their part. But that's not why I give it. I give it because I love them and want to see the joy on their faces when they open it. And if my daughter would spend the next 6 months after Christmas repeating the mantra, "thank you, daddy - I am such a horrible daughter, so lousy, such a miserable wretch, and you are so amazing, so wonderful, so much higher than I. . .I don't deserve you or your gift" at some point I would say "stop it!" Or I'd sign her up for counseling.
There's a time and a place to remember this great gift of God to us in Jesus, and certainly each generation needs to hear the story again, but I'm just not a fan of the way it often slides into low self-esteem Christianity. The puritan heritage that speaks of us as worms and lower than dirt and wretches, that sees us as lowly vassals lucky even to mop the floor in God's great Kingdom. Instead, we're the prodigal child welcomed home with a party, with a celebration.
Regardless of how we tell the story, we still stand on this side of Easter. I'm not sure it's healthy to try to go back pre-Easter. I'm not sure we ought to spend so much time lamenting the sins of which we're already forgiven. God wants to throw a party, and we're still fixated on the dirt that's already been washed away.