Brothers and sisters,
As the Christmas season wrapped up in the beginning of January, I remember saying to Robin and Kathryn, “Well, we’ve got a little time before Lent will be here this year.” Then, I blinked. And now, it’s Ash Wednesday!
The actual practice of coming to worship on a night like tonight and having ashes placed on one’s head dates back over a thousand years, with the earliest recorded mention of Ash Wednesday coming sometime in the 8th century. The ashes themselves are meant to signify several different things. In one sense, they are a reminder to us of the words of God to Adam after the Fall, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis
3:19; emphasis mine). Thus, the ashes remind us of our own sinful nature and of our mortality.
In another sense, the ashes are meant as a sign of grief. We grieve over our own sins and understand that we ought to confess and repent. We grieve the brokenness of our world and acknowledge that there is so much work to be done to help people with their daily needs, as well as their spiritual needs. And we grieve that while we know God’s kingdom is coming, it has not come yet. And so the ashes can be understood as a sign of grief for the way things are, longing for the way things ought to be, and hope for the way things will be one day.
There’s one other interpretation of the ashes that I will put forth in my Ash Wednesday meditation tonight. I also see the ashes simply as a marker of who we are as Christians. They are outward signs of inward truths. Those truths? That we have decided to follow Jesus. That we understand that there is a cross that awaits us at the end of this season. That we choose to help others even when it may not be in our best interest. That we believe in the inherent dignity of all people, created by God in God’s own image. That we know that even if there is a crucifixion coming, even if our bodies are mortal, that Christ has already overcome death.
So, Ash Wednesday is kind of a strange day of the church calendar. It is a day on which we mark ourselves with a symbol the reminds us of our own mortality. The cross of ashes is a mark of death. But it is also a day on which we declare that death does not have the final say. Yes, we are all of us taken from the dust and to the dust we shall return, but there is still more beyond that moment. And in the meantime, the ashes convict us of our need to reach out to those who need help, to work for God’s kingdom in all that we do, and to remember that no matter how dark things can get—God is with us. Always. May we live into the truth of the Gospel during this Lenten season.
Grace and peace,