The Importance of Ashes on Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday starts the forty-day preparation period for Easter Sunday. Count back forty days from Easter (excluding Sundays) and you will arrive at this Wednesday… exactly seven weeks before Easter. This forty-day period corresponds to Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2).

The aim of an Ash Wednesday worship service is threefold: to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance in all of life; and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin.

We begin our journey towards Easter with the sign of ashes.

This ancient sign speaks of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, calls us to heartfelt repentance, and urges us to place our hope in God’s grace alone.

In an Ash Wednesday service, the minister places ashes on our foreheads. It is fascinating to do a brief study on ‘ashes’ in the Bible. What do ashes point to in the Scriptures? What is their significance?

1. Ashes portray for us our mortality, frailty and brevity of life.

Genesis 18:27 – Abraham spoke to the LORD: “I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

Genesis 3:19b – Dust you are and to dust you will return. Do you remember the assertions that Siggy made in the movie “What About Bob?” “You are going to die. I’m going to die. We are all going to die!”  When ashes are placed on your forehead with the sign of the cross, it is right to ask the Lord to help you to number your days so that you might present to Him a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

2. Ashes portray a mourning for and repentance over sin. All throughout the Scriptures, ashes are used as a symbol for mourning and repenting over sin. For example, look at the response to Jonah’s preaching in the ancient city of Nineveh. Jonah 3:3-8 reads: So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. 4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

 5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands.

3. Ashes do not have the last word for a Christian. God’s Word instructs us that sin and death do not have the last word. Our God replaces ashes with something else… A beautiful headdress, a turban (crown) of beauty. God gives his gracious gift of eternal life through His anointed one (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners;
2 To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. When you wear the ashes tonight, you are remembering that one day you will wear a turban of beauty instead of ashes…

Prayer: Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. May these ashes remind us of our mortality. Grant us repentant hearts and teach us again that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life through Jesus Christ. Thank you that He has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…. Amen.

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