Today, Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” This tradition marks the first day of Lent, known as Ash Wednesday, and serves as the beginning of the forty-day period, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The practice of using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Hebrew people (Jon 3:6; Job 42:6). Christian use of ashes goes back to the 2nd century (as recorded in the writings of Tertullian), and it was widely practiced by the 5th century.
A typical Ash Wednesday service today includes the invitation for each person to come forward to have the sign of the cross marked on his or her forehead. We are then reminded that we, like the burned palm fronds, will someday turn to dust. As your forehead is marked with ashes, you will hear these words from Genesis 3:19—”Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Some might look at this practice and say that it is a dark or even morbid aspect of the Christian faith. As Lent’s finale, after all, we look to Jesus on the cross where he experienced one of the most painful forms of punishment ever devised. In spite of this, I don’t think Ash Wednesday or Lent are particularly dark, at least not inappropriately so.
Instead, I would suggest that Ash Wednesday and Lent are a chance to step back from the distractions and the niceties of our lives to see clearly the potent and ever-present pain and suffering in the world around us. It is also a reminder that even if we feel like we have control over our lives right now, there will come a day when we won’t.
On Ash Wednesday we kneel together, as a community and congregation, acknowledge that the world and our lives are broken. But the reason this isn’t just a dark, despondent day or season of the year is because underneath the ashes there is hope.
After Jesus’ death, his followers took his body and laid it in a tomb. They rolled a stone in front to seal the living from the dead, fully expecting the body of their Lord to go the way of every one before. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
Of course we know, as the disciples were soon to find out, that Jesus did not go the way of every other. He fought the all-consuming power of death – and won. He conquered ashes and the grave, being made new and wholly transformed, and his victory was turned into ours.
Lent is not just a season of sadness or suffering, but a season to again be transformed. As we reflect on the realities of our world – brokenness, suffering, loss and death – we can experience the grace of our God all-the-more. His victory shines all the brighter when seen from the darkness of our world. Jesus stepped into the grave so that we could step out, so that we could be freed from the cycle of life, death and decay, and turn instead to resurrection.
As your heads are marked by ashes tonight, you can be reminded from where you have come. But later tonight at the sink, or in the shower, as your forehead is washed clean, let that be a reminder as to where, through Christ, you are going.