If you have never participated in an Ash Wednesday service before, or are unsure why the church takes part in this peculiar practice, you are not alone. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a forty-day journey of fasting, repentance, and prayer as we journey toward the cross of Jesus and his resurrection together. This day is a day that illustrates to us—through literal ashes—our humanity. We remember that we are frail, that we are sinful, that we will die—and, because of these things, we are dependent upon the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God.
Ashes are an impactful symbol for this remembrance because they remind us that we are formed from dust and will return to dust. But ash is also difficult to clean, it smells weird, it’s messy, it’s gritty—so, in this element, we are reminded of the mark of sin that can so often stain our lives, and of our need for a gracious Savior. Ashes were also a symbol of mourning in the Old Testament. When people mourned, grieved, or repented, they sprinkled ashes on their heads to show how sad or remorseful they were.
We place the ashes on our heads for much the same reason, but when we do it, we place them in the shape of the cross—a reminder that, though our lives and the world around us are still marked by sin and death, we are formed in a new way, the way of Jesus. The cross is a sign of death, but it also illustrates a God who entered into suffering with us and for us and then ultimately made way for resurrection.
It is tradition to use the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday to remind us of how quickly our good intentions and praise can turn into sin and death in ugly ways. We have seen in our own lives and in the world around us how quickly this can happen, and we use this time to confess both our individual and our corporate sins, reacting on how we can again be restored to the likeness of Christ and see the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in even the darkest and dirtiest places of our hearts.
It is our prayer and our hope that the ashes will lead ultimately to resurrection for us as well. We also pray that, as we journey these next forty days together—through prayer, fasting, and repentance—the dead
places, the dark places, the places of ash in our hearts and lives are transformed by the Holy Spirit into places where the resurrected life grows anew.