Ancient Future Time. Robert Webber’s explanation of Ash Wednesday especially addresses those who are new to liturgical worship. He writes:
“Unfortunately some Christians live as though the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ never happened. Our lives become absorbed in the day-to-day experiences of life. We focus on name-brand clothing, the color of our houses, the size of our bank account...We too easily forget our Maker and Redeemer, replacing God with things and ambition. Lent is the season that does something about this situation. It calls us back to God, back to basics, back to the spiritual realities of life. It calls on us to put to death the sin and the indifference we have in our hearts toward God and our fellow persons. And it beckons us to enter once again into the joy of the Lord--the joy of a new life born out of a death to the old life. This is what Ash Wednesday is all about--the fundamental change of life required of those who would die with Jesus and be raised to a new life in him.
For most people coming from my background, an Ash Wednesday service and Lent are quite foreign and somewhat threatening. The Christmas and Advent cycle are much less threatening because Christmas themes are so prevalent in our culture...But Lent is another matter. Lent appears to be dark and foreboding. It reminds Protestants of their worst fears of Roman Catholic practices--ritualism, works, fasting, vigils, and the like. Haven't we been saved from all that (we ask)? Didn't the Reformers free us from having to do works and pilgrimages and such things?
…Perhaps we laughed inside and thought to ourselves, just another mark of an external, ritualistic religion. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Only God can judge the heart. Aside from that, dare we ask: Does something lie behind that symbol that has the potential to make our journey into Easter more meaningful? After all, what do we do for Easter? Most Protestants don't make any spiritual preparation for the annual celebration of the death and resurrection. For example, when I was growing up the only preparation for Easter made in my home--a deeply committed Christian home at that--was the planning and purchasing of new clothing. Easter was a weekend event. Preparing for Easter for seven weeks was unthinkable, ludicrous, even pagan.
But now I am constrained to ask: Who is the pagan? Yes, it is wrong to go through the motions of Ash Wednesday and Lent in a mechanical, uninvolved way. But it is also wrong to ignore any kind of preparation for the Easter event…We can begin the journey of Lent by the life-changing content of the Ash Wednesday service.”
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004) 99-100.