In our more contemporary society, we don’t really encounter ashes. We live in a culture which sanitizes pretty much everything. Anything unsightly, like ashes, have been removed from view. At one time, vehicles use to come with ash trays and cigarette lighters, but now there is a USB port and a storage area. Ash trays were everywhere, but now most kids don’t even know what they are. Even among those who smoke, some have switched to e-cigarettes and vaping which don’t produce any ash. About the only place one has to really deal with ashes is if you have a wood-burning fireplace or a pellet stove or a charcoal grill, but even then, most have been replaced with gas. So rarely in our uber-hygienic lives do we engage with ashes.
That is except one day a year. On that one day we engage them up close and personal. We put ashes on our faces. Ashes visibly mark our foreheads. Of course, that day is today, Ash Wednesday.
Christians for centuries have imposed ashes on themselves as a sign of humility and repentance. We find this all over the pages of Scripture. Job lowered himself and repented “in dust and ashes” (42:6). Daniel “pleaded with God in prayer, fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (9:3). We’re told in the book of Esther that the entire Jewish people fasted and wore ashes in their time of weeping and crying out (4:1-3). The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel each summon their hearers to repent with ashes. Jeremiah calls out: “O my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes” (6:26a). Jesus himself even refers to repentance with sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). All of these biblical references associate the sign of ashes with repentance. And so on this Ash Wednesday, we do the same. We recognize our need for repentance.
But why ashes as the symbol of repentance? Well first off, to get down into the dust and ashes means to humble yourself, to “go low” in a stance of humility before God. In repentance, we humble ourselves before God. Also, ashes are dirty. Ashes remind us of the filth of our sin. Repentance acknowledges the sin that clings to us like dirt.
Ashes are also associated with death, which is the ultimate penalty for sin. After man’s first sin in the Garden of Eden, God condemned them to death by saying, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). At graveside services, the words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” are spoken. So when we repent, we confess that we deserve death for our sins.
But why all this talk about repentance, why should we repent, what does it mean to repent? Our reading from Joel 2 says, “‘Even now’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God” (2:12-13a). Twice in this verse the Lord calls us to return. The word translated as “return” is frequently translated as “repent”. The word literally means to turn, to turn from sin back to God. It means to make a 180-degree reversal. And this call to turn, to return, to repent … Joel isn’t telling this to the pagans, no, he’s telling it to God’s people. He telling it to you and me!
And why should we turn, why should we repent? Because we’re sinful. We are constantly sinning. We heard that in the second reading. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). A man prayed these words to God. “Lord, today I haven’t lied, gossiped, been unkind or lost my temper. I haven’t had an impure thought or selfish motive … But now it is time for me to get up out of bed.” It won’t be long after getting up out of bed that this man will commit sin. We are also quick to get dirtied with sin at the beginning of each day. The mark of sin is constantly on us. And the penalty of death is always before us. So we repent, we turn back to God because we are filthy with sin and need His forgiveness.
Another reason we repent is because God is merciful. The prophet Joel says, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (2:13). We repent in order to receive God’s mercy. This Lenten series revolves around the theme of divine mercy. Lent is a season in which we take a look at our lives in view of God’s mercy toward us in the sacrifice of His Son for us on the cross.
Jesus came to this sin-filled world of ours and took upon himself the fight of our sin. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that God made Christ “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus suffered and died to pay the penalty of your sin. He lay in the dust and ashes of death for you. All this he did so that you can be forgiven of your sin, so that you may be washed clean of your spiritual filth. God promises us that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9).
This is why the imposition, the applying of ashes today is made in the sign of the cross. When you come up for communion tonight, the elder will place ashes on your forehead with horizontal and vertical strokes forming the image of the cross. While he is doing that, he’ll say, “from dust you came, to dust you shall return.” The ashes remind us of our sin, the cross reminds us of what Christ did for us through the shedding of His own body and blood. After receiving the ashes, you will partake in the precious sacrament of Holy Communion for the forgiveness of sins. Then I’ll come by and remove your ashes with a damp white cloth to tell you that your sins have been washed away.
So we repent. We repent today on Ash Wednesday. We repent during the next forty days of the Lenten season. And we repent every day of our lives. We do so in view of God’s mercy as repentance and the forgiveness of sin become a permanent mark in our lives.
There is a story of a pastor in a rural community who was preparing for the Ash Wednesday service when he remembered that he had not made ashes for that year. It was his tradition to gather some palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration and burn them into ashes for use in the next Ash Wednesday service. But he had forgotten to do this. So he decided to do what he thought would be the next best thing. Out of the brush pile back behind the church he pulled out the Christmas tree which was all dried up. The pastor cut off some of the pine branches and burnt them into ashes. When Ash Wednesday arrived, this pastor used these ashes to mark the foreheads of his parishioners.
Later that evening he received a phone call from an angry member. This disgruntled person complained that she could not was the mark of the ashes from her forehead. The mark was permanent. So the pastor tried to rinse the ashes from his own forehead, but a mark remained on him as well. In fact, the mark of the cross on the foreheads of all of those who had received ashes remained visible for several days after Ash Wednesday. Eventually over time and after repeated washings, the mark did disappear.
So what happened? Well, apparently the pine branches from the Christmas tree had originally been sprayed with a dye to preserve the color. The chemical element of the dye remained in the ashes and so stained the skin of the people who received those ashes upon their foreheads.
The parishioners were understandably irritated at the semi-permanent stain on their foreheads. But a lesson could be taken from this mishap. The unintended but important message coming out of this incident was that repentance is not for one day only. It is to be a permanent mark on our lives. And the cross, the symbol of God’s mercy, the cross is to be visible in our lives at all times.
On this Ash Wednesday, and during this season of Lent, and in every day, may repentance be a permanent mark in our lives. For then we will live a penitential life in view of God’s mercy. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.