Tomorrow is a day in the church known as Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of the season of the church known as Lent. This season of Lent is about reflection and focus on getting ourselves ready for Easter. As followers of Jesus prepare for Easter they take time for a penitential (reflective) walk through the life of Jesus. This season is marked by confessing (admitting) sins, prayer, often fasting, and meditation.
I know that a lot of that might sound a tad too deep for many people or almost impossible for others, so we need not make this a hard and fast rule to follow. The idea behind the fasting and the prayer, the confession and the meditation is to draw us closer to Jesus. These actions serve as intentional ways in which we put off a little bit of ourselves and put on a little bit of Jesus in return.
Take for instance the fasting portion, which we’ll hit on more in a future post. The purpose of fasting in its simplest explanation is to replace a craving for one thing with a fulfillment in a relationship with Jesus. So in a sense it means we need to lose the sugar to help focus on the savior. The same can be true for the other things mentioned above. We use them as ways to more intentionally focus on who we are in this relationship with Jesus.
But what about the ashes and dust thing on Ash Wednesday? I mean that’s kind of odd if you really think about it.
What we may not realize is that Ash Wednesday and the pomp and circumstance that goes along with it didn’t really start until around the 11th century and wasn’t widely accepted among Christian traditions until the early 1970s. The Bible never talks about having ashes marked on our foreheads. There is no real rule saying that we have to do it this way. So if it’s not specifically Biblical (mandated by God) why do we do it and what does it mean?
There is great symbolism in the ashes on Ash Wednesday of which many may not be aware. The ashes used to mark a cross on your forehead are made by burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. This means we’re taking the victorious welcome of Jesus as King and combining it with our humble approach to him as sinners.
Additionally, ashes in the Old Testament were a sign of humility and mourning. So when we receive the ashes on our heads formed in the shape of a cross, we’re essentially saying that we humble ourselves before the one is King of kings. Since Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, they also serve as a mark that we are mourning what this seasons brings – namely the suffering and death of Jesus.
The words spoken on Ash Wednesday are another reminder of why we do them. You are dust and to dust you shall return. This connects the ashes of victory with the dust of our beginnings. Where we have erred from God and wondered from His ways, the ashes are our humble journey back. We are reminded of our simple beginnings. Dust. Dirt clods formed in the hands of God. Breathed into with the very breath of the Father. The ashes connect us with Adam who is the symbol of our sinfulness. The cross connects us with the new man, Jesus who is the symbol of our forgiveness.
In a year that has been wrought with so much upheaval and turmoil and confusion, the normal Ash Wednesday might not be possible. So do we have to have ashes on Ash Wednesday? Simple answer is no. We don’t need ashes or fasting or any of the outward signs to connect us to the meaning and intent and purpose of this season as Christians. Whether you receive ashes or not this year, humble your heart and spirit. Remember your beginning as part of creation formed in the hands of the creator. Ponder the death and resurrection of Christ that promises bring new beginning to the old ways within us.
Whether you got ashes or you didn’t, if it wasn’t about Jesus you just got dirty.