Today (6 March 2019) marks the start of Lent, and we celebrate Ash Wednesday. It is not a biblical requirement, but this tradition has been honoured by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter.
In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.
Why Should We Observe Ash Wednesday?
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches. More and more churches hold Ash Wednesday services. The distinctive activity of Ash Wednesday services is the “imposition of ashes.”
Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
The theological core of Ash Wednesday is shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace and salvation. It also enacts biblical injunctions to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.” What I value most about Ash Wednesday worship services is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness.
In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Saviour.
Ash Wednesday Enriches Our Relationship with God
The denial of death… it’s all around us. When people die, they are often alone, sequestered in hospitals far away from the sad eyes of friends and family. If someone happens to die at home, the corpse is quickly sent away from the grieving relatives. In polite society, one doesn’t talk much about death. And when it’s necessary to say something that has to do with dying, nifty euphemisms keep us from confronting the brute facts.
Of course our own fears concerning our own demise match our cultural squeamishness about death. We don’t want to think about our own mortality, and we do many things to pretend that its not approaching. We dye our graying hair. We cover our age spots with make up. We get cosmetic surgery to preserve the image of youth.
Rarely do we seriously think about our own death. I’m amazed at how unusual it is for someone to make plans for his or her own memorial service, or even to leave notes for the family. These are things we’d rather not have to bother with.
Ash Wednesday is a day to stare death in the face, to acknowledge our mortality. All of us will die. Christians who observe this get ashes “imposed” on their foreheads, while a minister or lay church worker says, “You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.” In other words, “You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.”
What gives us such freedom to think about death? Are we Christians morose? Do we have some peculiar fascination with dying? I don’t think so. Rather, what allows us to stare death in the face is the assurance of life – real life, eternal life.
When we know our lives are safe in the hands of God, and that this physical life is just the beginning of eternity, then we’re free to be honest about what lies ahead for us. We can face death without fear or pretending, because we know the One who defeated death. We can talk openly about the limits of this life. Why? Because we know that through Christ we have entered into life eternal, the fullness of life that will not end when our bodies give out.
Are we grateful for the grace of God that allows us to stare death in the face so we can live with greater passion and delight? How thankful I am for a day that allows me to think about death so I can cherish life even more!