Ash Wednesday is coming up on March 1. Each year, countless Christians around the world are marked with ashes and told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So what’s the deal with ashes?
First, some background. Ashes in the Bible:
- Ashes are a metaphor for humility. Speaking to God, Abraham says “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord; I who am but dust and ashes.” (Gen 18:27)
- Ashes are a sign of grief – especially of grief and sadness because of sin. “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther 4:1).
- On being made aware of sin, this grief and sadness is sometimes called “repentance” – a desire to change one’s life for the better. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:6)
- These ashes are often tied to the “dust” of creation – a reminder that our existence is fleeting and dependent on God. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
- “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 4:2:5-6)
- Ashes are often also connected with prayer and the action of fasting – abstaining from food for the purpose of spiritual clarity. “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)
- Jesus himself – and all of the first Christians – were familiar with these connections: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (Luke 10:13)
In the Jewish tradition, ashes were a signs of repentance, of humility, of grief, and a reminder of our mortality. This was carried over into the early church. Both Tertullian (ca. 200 AD) and Eusebius (ca 300 AD) write about the use of ashes as a sign of asking for forgiveness for sins.
By the year 1000 AD, the season of Lent was becoming a time when all Christians would prepare themselves for Easter by repenting of their sins and asking for forgiveness. As first day, Ash Wednesday set the tone for the whole season. One monk (Ælfric of Eynsham) suggested that people have ashes poured over their heads (think of the mess that must have made!).
On Ash Wednesday we are called to honest reflection on our lives. What are the changes that we need to make? What do we need to repent of? What change do we need in our lives?
And together, as a congregation, we turn to God and ask for forgiveness.
Join us at Spirit of Joy! for Ash Wednesday worship, March 1, at 6:30pm
– Pastor David