Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent, a period of forty days and six Sundays prior to Easter. This is the time when the church prepares to celebrate the resurrection by focusing on the journey of Jesus to the cross. Lent provides the church an opportunity to separate ourselves anew from the world and worldly habits and, by practicing spiritual disciplines, renew our vows of devotion to Christ. During this season of the Christian year, as disciples of Jesus, we deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow Him. For, as Paul reminds us, it is not until we are united with Christ in a death like His that we will be united with Christ in a resurrection like His.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder to us all of what it means for us to be human. We are both sinful and mortal. And, apart from Christ, we have no hope of overcoming these limitations. The ashes are visible symbols of how frail, fallen, and hopeless we are apart from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. This service leads us to take our humanity seriously, to confess our sinfulness, to acknowledge our mortality, and to ask for God's mercy made known to us in Christ: As Paul reminded the Corinthians: "For our sake God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
The Meaning of the Ashes
Throughout the Bible, ashes have always been a symbol of mortality. On Ash Wednesday, as the Season of Lent begins, the ashes serve as a vivid reminder not only of the imminent death of Jesus on Good Friday, but also of our own mortality. As early as Genesis 3, God reminded Adam and all of Adam's sons and daughters, "You are dust, and to dust we shall return."
Ashes have also served as a sign of sinfulness and our need for repentance. After Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh and they believed God, the king of Nineveh, as a sign of his repentance and remorse, arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus condemned the people who had gathered for not repenting in sackcloth and ashes as had been the custom of others. As the ashes are imposed, we are reminded of the sins we have committed, the sacrifice of Jesus for those sins, and the call of Jesus to turn from those sins.
David found out the hard way that there is nowhere we can go to avoid the ugly consequences of our sin. In Psalm 51, he said, “My sin is ever before me.” Ash Wednesday is a reminder of the harsh reality of sin. But, as awful as sin is, there is one reality that is even more pervasive and ubiquitous than sin.