03/05/2014 10:03 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

Ashen Foreheads and Ashen Hearts

For six years my weekday commute ranged from the far western suburbs of Chicago to its downtown "Loop" by train, then up Milwaukee Avenue (by subway or bus) to the Northwest side, a minimum of 90 minutes one way.

One year, returning home from work on Ash Wednesday, I emerged from the Dearborn Street subway (now called the "Blue Line") amid the usual press of commuters.

Walking toward Northwestern Station (Ogilvie) along Madison Street, it seemed as if every third or fourth person had ashes on their forehead. One or two subway riders had borne ashes, but this was a revelation. Who knew so many Chicagoans were Christians?

For a block or two, each time a pedestrian with ashes passed by, I felt a kindred pride. Christians in contemporary America sometimes feel part of a minority, a fringe. But for a few moments that late afternoon, my tribe, if one can call it that, was made visible by an outward sign of ashen crosses.

This year, the majority of Christ followers around the world -- Eastern and Western Christians, whether Protestant, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic -- will, like the ancient Christians, come together in the Great Fast we call Lent, an annual 40-day season of self-examination, repentance, self-denial, prayer, and meditation on the saving acts of Jesus Christ.

Lent reminds us that when we come to Jesus we do not come to him alone. We enter a community of his disciples who, like the first Christians, share common spiritual disciplines and practices, including fasts we undertake together.

As I reached the train station and boarded the Union-Pacific West Line for Geneva, I noted, as I made my way through the crowded cars to an open seat, that the ratio of commuters with ashes had declined a bit.

I started to have second thoughts. Chicago is a very Catholic city, after all. It's not only Sinatra's kind of town, it's home to 2.4 million Roman Catholics. This wonderful Ash Wednesday scene, this sudden unveiling of how many fast-keeping Christians I walked among unawares every day, was due, in part, to the heavily Catholic population.

Not that Roman Catholics aren't true believers as much or even more than the rest of us who claim Jesus as Lord, but that, like many Christians of the diverse American Church, they tend to observe popular rituals without a change of heart.

That's finally what struck me on the way home that evening: Many of the souls I encountered with ashes on their foreheads -- not just Roman Catholics but Lutherans, Episcopalians, Wesleyans, Disciples or others that observe Ash Wednesday -- are too often Christians by habit or by family influence or even by a kind of personal sentiment.

If the number of people with ashes on their foreheads were men and women whose minds and hearts were surrendered to Jesus Christ, counting along with these other Christians of similar conviction who had not yet observed Ash Wednesday that day or who had washed any sign of it away, plus all serious Christians who do not observe the Great Fast (in America, nearly the majority?), we ought to be living in a very different culture than the one in which we are presently walking around.

I do not mean this only in the narrow political sense in which our moral life is reduced to public policy debates and theatrics but that our culture evidences very little genuine creativity, or meaningful sacrifice, or costly courage, or unconditional welcome, or condition-less charity: the sort of habits of heart that disciples of Jesus Christ ought to demonstrate.

As the most familiar psalm of repentance (recited in every Christian service in which ashes are imposed) makes plain, God doesn't want our pious or petty denials of self (be it chocolate or Diet Coke or food or creature comforts or whatever), he wants our hearts:

"You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God." (Psalm 51:16-17)

The season of Lent is not first about fasting or self-denial; it's about serious participation -- here and now -- in God's divine forgiveness with all his people, from the heart: God's pardon of us and our pardon of others. It doesn't change God, it changes us. It changes our hearts.

And God desires a particular orientation and structure within this contrite heart: "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion." (Psalm 84:5)

Apart from metanoia -- the 180-degree change of direction that comes when we accept the work of grace in our lives -- ritual acts alone cannot set us on the pilgrim's path, cannot produce the fruit of conversion in us or in our culture.

This is not to deny the goodness of ritual, for we are incarnate and what happens to our bodies in worship -- when we lift our hands in praise, bow our knees in prayer, take the body and blood of Christ on our lips, or make the sign of the cross on our foreheads -- puts our minds, wills and hearts in a position to receive mercy.

Jesus doesn't need our ashes or fasting, of course, to redeem us. He healed humanity's desperate sin-sickness already in his body on the Cross. But spiritual disciplines -- holy practices that involve our minds, wills, hands, ears, eyes, knees, and feet -- attune our hearts to God's already-granted forgiveness and to eternal, embodied relationship with Christ.

This is what I came to understand that Ash Wednesday, as the sun set and the train made its way out of the city: It would be better for a minority to have invisible ashes on their hearts than for a visible majority to apply ashes to their foreheads alone.

Christian faith is about the Grace who loved us all while we were yet in our sins, far from God in mind and habit. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that our sins are now forgiven, today, every day, and forever.

Forgiveness is there for all, whether the ashes appear only on our foreheads, or not on them at all, but what joy and godly energy is available to change the world around us when our hearts are covered in the ash of contrition, converted and unified.

Dive into the deep end of Lent. Join this global, ancient, and cross-denominational adventure in sweeping the houses of our hearts, inventorying their shelves, and throwing out the debris and idols we find there; of turning away from fallen habits, the ways of the world, and the spirit of this age. Jesus waits with joyful expectation for our greater participation in his body, in his gift of forgiveness, and in his divine life, a life that relentlessly seeks to transfigure us and the cosmos.

The tribe God desires and elects in Jesus Christ includes all flesh, a world where all nations are renewed, refreshed and purified by the holy fire of Love.