As I look up from my computer I see a woman in my coffice with a large gray cross smeared across the canvas of her forehead. I know today is Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent…and yet I do a double take. The gesture of being marked with the cross with the symbol of repentance is quite counter cultural. We don’t usually see such private promises declared so boldly…even if we are aware of the Church calendar.
When I was young, protestants didn’t do such things. Therefore this practice was foreign to me. Maybe it is to you too. I did a quick search of the Bible to the places where people “put on ashes.” I found some interesting snapshots.
2 Samuel 13 – This passage tells the horrific story of Tamar. She put on ashes after the abuse of her brother and the shame he forced her to carry.
Esther 4 – Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, rips his clothes and puts on ashes when he hears a date has been set for the genocide of his people – the Israelites.
Job 2 – After losing everything dear to him, Job sat among the ashes in his pain and grief scraping his wounds with broken pottery.
Jeremiah 6 – God commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to put on ashes and prepare for His judgement of their wickedness.
Daniel 9 – Daniel put on ashes to confess their sins, intercede on behalf of the people and call on God to extend grace though they deserved punishment.
The ashes are a symbol of the stench of man’s sinfulness and the pain that it inflicts. They are also “a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It not only prefigures the mourning at the death of Jesus, but also places the worshipper in a position to realize the consequences of sin.” 1
The “putting on of ashes” is not a Catholic thing. It is not an emergent thing. It is not a pagan thing. It is something the people of God have been doing for generations. “Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian.” 2
I will be participating in an Ash Wednesday service in a few hours. Our community will step into the season of introspection, examination and repentance together. I hope that you will too.