As a young Catholic teenager, Ash Wednesday, or more specifically the priest making an ash cross on your forehead as a sign of repentance, presented two main issues. Firstly you had to make sure you hair was not in the way; you did not want the ash in your fringe. The hair also had a double purpose of hiding the smudged mark on your way out of church in case someone stopped to inform you that you had something on your forehead. Secondly there were the time constraints; what is the minimum amount of time you had to leave it on for? You could try to touch it and rub it off discreetly during the rest of the service, but it definitely had to be removed before coming into contact with others who had not been in church.
There was an overriding fear that this physical evidence of having been to church may have been seen by someone from school. Yet this is an easy act compared with Old Testament repentance. One example is when Jonah went to Nineveh to proclaim their destruction. The King of Nineveh immediately got off his throne, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes and not content with his own repentant act, he ordered every man and beast to put on sackcloth and have no food or drink as well! This is an example of what any parent would describe as saying sorry like you mean it.
The act of saying sorry is a major part of repentance; it allows you to ask the forgiveness of the person you have wronged. To be truly sorry you need not only the elaborate gestures of repentance but also to look the person in the eye and ask for their forgiveness. The Catholic church has the Sacrament of Reconciliation for this, other denominations have spiritual directors or someone you are accountable to. The early Christians used to have public confessions in front of the whole community.
It is only after this act that forgiveness can be received. Forgiveness is a gift that is freely given by those who were wronged. If I offend someone close to me, I know they will forgive me, but I still have to ask. Jonah knew God would forgive the Ninevites if they asked which is why he did not want to go. Forgiveness also brings freedom to those who give it.
Too often we can hold onto our wrong doings or the wrongs that others have done to us. We bring them out again during arguments or use them as leverage, but this is not true forgiveness. Forgiveness means not holding these things against others or yourself any longer; it is a setting free of you and your neighbour, it is liberating. Forgiveness can be seen as the taking of our wrong doings and throwing them into the depths of the sea, never to be dredged up again. This does not mean that the hurt disappears or that work does not need to be done to restore the relationship, but it allows the healing to begin taking place and for the wound to not become infected.
It is the most beautiful gift that we can offer to those around us and the most precious gift we can give to ourselves. It is also an undeserved, unearned, never ending gift which can make it all the harder to seek. We all need to say sorry, we all need some restoration with another, we all have someone to forgive. Yet we can choose to ignore this and not claim the healing it brings by denying our need. Jesus says it is the sick who need a doctor, so swallow your pride, put on some sackcloth and ashes and go seek some forgiveness.