March 9, 2011
Ashes to Ashes
by Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com Family Editor
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19).
"Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." These are the priest's words as he solemnly traces an ashen cross on the forehead of each believer with his thumb every year on Ash Wednesday. This Wednesday, Christians around the world will flock to receive these ashes, marking the first of the forty days of Lent 2011.
So where did this tradition come from? Why do so many Christians feel compelled to "get their ashes" every year?
Dust made an appearance in Scripture at the very beginning. God made Adam out of dust before breathing life into him. But after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God gave the pair some bad news: death would now return them and their descendants to dust. In recognition of this tragic day, ancient Israelites customarily sat or rolled in ashes when mourning the death of a loved one.
But ashes were not just worn after a physical death. Wearing ashes also became symbolic of spiritual death. In the Old Testament, a penitent sinner often covered his head in ashes as an acknowledgement of his wrongdoing. We see both Job and the prophet Daniel do this. Here is Daniel's heartfelt prayer recorded in Daniel 9: 15 - 16, 18:
"Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill… We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy..."
Today, the ashes of Ash Wednesday continue to represent physical mortality. They are a sign of the physical consequences of original sin: death. They also remind us of Christ's suffering and death on the Cross.
But perhaps more importantly, ashes continue to symbolize public repentance and spiritual conversion. Like Daniel, ash-wearers openly acknowledge their sinful nature, repent of their wrongs, and recognize that salvation flows from God's mercy, not their righteousness.
This penitent attitude is at the heart of Lent. Whether you receive ashes on Wednesday or not, these forty days are set aside to help believers come to terms with humanity's universal sinfulness, as well as help each one of us recognize the ways we personally sin against God. As we take responsibility for the areas in life where we've fallen and seek God's forgiveness, our relationship with Him deepens.
In a culture where self-esteem is a high priority, the Lenten observance does not always come easily. We'd prefer to rationalize wrongdoing while publicizing our talents. But the purpose of Lent is never to leave us sitting in a heap of ashes. Instead, it's meant to bring us a little closer to reality and to cultivate a sense of awe and gratitude for God's incredible mercy towards those who trust in Him. At the end of the journey, the Lenten traveler enters more deeply into the joy of the empty tomb, the resurrection, where sin and death no longer hold power over God's people.
Intersecting Faith & Life: Reflect on the past year and your Christian walk. Ask God to show you where you need to change. What sins do you gravitate towards? What sins have you rationalized away? Make peace with God by confessing and sincerely apologizing for your sins. Thank God for His mercy. Pray about any action you may need to take to avoid temptation to sin.
Ash Wednesday: A Time to Reflect and Prepare