Lent. It’s a 40 day season (excluding Sundays) of penitence and prayer with a concentrated focus on discipleship to Jesus. Although it has taken various forms and spanned different numbers of days, its origins are ancient, emerging in incipient form already in the 2nd century A.D. The church largely settled on the 40 day season to mirror Christ’s 40 day trek through the wilderness and subsequent stand against the Satan’s temptations.
Rewinding these 40 days from Easter brings us to a Wednesday, which the church has deemed “Ash Wednesday.” The distinguishing feature of this day and service is the ancient tradition (reaching at least as far back as the 900s A.D.) of the imposition of ashes.
If you’ve attended this service before, you’ve seen and heard the pastor and his assistant speak these words to worshippers – Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. – as they trace a cross in ashes on their foreheads (or wrists). This statement and the accompanying ashes have deep roots in Scripture. Consider the following verses:
- for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
- Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).
- I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).
- [Jonah] called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes (Jonah 3:4-6).
- Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes (Daniel 9:3).
- For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14).
- “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes (Luke 10:13).
These words inform our practice. To be direct: the words of Scripture shape and drive our practice. As such, the ashes that we receive remind us of at least three things. First, ashes are dirty and they remind us of our sinfulness. Sin is dirty. It stains our life and pollutes our minds and our relationships. So, these dirty ashes help us hear the call to repent, confess our sins, and turn to God to receive His cleansing and forgiveness in Jesus.
Second, ashes are a stark reminder of our mortality. Not only do we hear God’s Word spoken over us (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” which is a direct echo of God’s word to Adam and Eve after they sinned and brought death upon themselves and the world), but we see the ashes staining the worshippers around us, reminding us that the curse of death remains on all of us.
This is a powerful moment. Every year I am struck anew by this reality as I speak these words, not only over the people for whom I so deeply care at Zion (and Pastors Johnson, Riggert, and Vogel could say the same at Trinity), but as I speak them over my wife and children, tracing the ashen cross on their foreheads. They, like me, and like you, will die. We are mortal. There are no exceptions. Some of us will die young. Some of us will die old. But we will all die. And this moment in the Ash Wednesday service brings this Scriptural reality home in a poignant and visible way.
Some may see this as morbid, but such is not the intent; the intent is to be sober about our mortality. Scripture says repeatedly:
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).
Teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
Wisdom dictates that we own our mortality and the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday help us to do it in a meaningful and memorable way.
Before we get to the third thing of which ashes remind us, it’s important to clarify that the ashes in the Ash Wednesday service are not sacramental. We have no command from Jesus to use them and no promise of His grace attached to them. The same goes, for instance, for palms on Palm Sunday and lilies and flags on Easter Sunday. In fact, the same goes for the services themselves. Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and even Easter Sunday are not commanded in Scripture. While they are obviously deeply rooted and Scripture and clearly communicate the Biblical story, the church is not commanded by God to hold services named Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter Sunday. We hold these services, though, because they communicate the Biblical story and connect us to the events narrated therein. When it comes to ashes, therefore, worshippers are free to receive them and free not to receive them.
These ashes, then, not only remind us of our sin and of our mortality, but there in the very midst of our sin and mortality, we see the sign of the cross on our foreheads and that cross gives us hope because it is on the cross that Jesus forgives our sins, and in His resurrection, secures our life. This victory is graciously given to us in the cleansing waters of Baptism. Here Christ washes away the dirt of our sin and purifies us from all unrighteousness. Further, He promises us that we will rise bodily from the dust of death. Therefore, when worshippers wash their foreheads before bed, they are reminded of the forgiveness which they received in Baptism and the life in Christ that it brings.
Sin and repentance, mortality and death, forgiveness and life, that’s what we’re communicating on Ash Wednesday. Be a part of it. – Pastor Conner