Ashes on Ash Wednesday

ashes forming a crossFriends, today is Ash Wednesday on the church’s calendar. It starts the season of Lent that is a 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 (Matthew 4:2).

For believers in Jesus, the aim of Ash Wednesday is threefold:

  1. To meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a Savior;
  2. To renew our commitment to daily repentance in all of life;
  3. To remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin.

Our journey towards Easter Sunday begins 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.

It is a fascinating study to learn what the Bible has to say about ashes. What do ashes point to in the Scriptures? What is their significance?

First of all, ashes portray for us the deathly consequence of sin. We are mortal and frail. Our life is like a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Hear the words of Abraham in Genesis 18:27 when he spoke to the LORD: “I am nothing but dust and ashes.” God set forth the stark consequence of sin to Adam in Genesis 3:19b – “Dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The young boy Siggy said it succinctly to Bob (otherwise known as Bill Murray) in the movie What About Bob: “You are going to die. I’m going to die. We are all going to die!”  Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality and calls us to ask the Lord to help us to number our days so that we might present to Him a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

Secondly, ashes portray a mourning for and repentance over sin. All throughout the Scriptures, ashes are a symbol for broken-heartedness 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.

Thirdly, ashes 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 Messiah – the anointed one.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the
Lord‘s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the
Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

On Ash Wednesday, remember that the end of the story is not ashes and dust. One day we will wear a turban of beauty given to us by the LORD and we will experience His unending comfort. We are graced with the privilege of wearing this crown of beauty because our Lord worn the crown of thorns that was rightfully due us. This is, like the prophet Isaiah said, incredibly good news!

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday: Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. May the image of ashes remind us of our mortality and our need for repentant hearts. Teach us again that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life through Jesus Christ. Thank you that our Savior abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Amen.

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