The Mark of Ashes

Posted on February 5th, 2016 by Eli Thomas in Know Christ

I grew up in a fairly traditional Lutheran church. As a child I sang in the choir and as a young adult, I carried the cross at the head of the procession that occurred at the beginning of each service. We wore robes when serving Communion, we stood to sing, knelt to pray, and repeated the words marked for us on beginning on page 78 in the green book that was in every pew. To this day I can recall coming to church on Wednesday in the late winter to hear the pastor speak of sin and to queue up along with everyone else to have my forehead marked with ash.

This was normal and it was different enough from the regular services that I can recall looking forward to Ash Wednesday. I think, when I reflect on it, that I didn’t truly understand what was happening. I knew that it had something to do with sin, the pastor would speak about confession and repentance but I think I missed the importance of what I was experiencing. I just knew that it was sort of cool.

Unfortunately I think the observance of Ash Wednesday is a tradition that is recalled and celebrated less frequently each year in the Christian Church. We have lost the meaning. We have cast away traditions as outmoded, unimportant, ritualistic fluff that is unnecessary and even detracts from true worship. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that to embrace Christ is to not only know him but also to experience him. And Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to do both. Where else can I come, completely aware of my shortcomings, completely aware of my sins and have someone smudge a cross on my forehead in ash. To mark upon me not only my own humanity, to not only declare my own mortality and sinful nature, but also to remind me that I am covered by the cross of Christ? This is a wonderful moment when I am aware both of the crushing nature of my sin and the freedom of forgiveness. When I discover what John meant when he wrote: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16)

Ashes have long been associated with repentance as an outward sign of an inner change. Tertullian wrote in the 2nd century that confession of sin should be accompanied by dressing in sackcloth and lying in ashes. This was to be a true sign of humility. But this practice is not simply one of human creation, the Word of God also talks of the use of ashes to show repentance. In Jonah chpt 3, after the prophet Jonah declares to the people of Nineveh that in 40 days God will bring judgement upon them, destroying them and their city, the king responded by turning to God.

“The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:6)

I look forward to having that ash smudged on my forehead because it is a reminder to me not only of what I have done, but also what God has done for me. This little mark declares not only to me but publicly to any who see that I confess my sins and I am covered by the blood of Christ. Praise God that his love for us is so great that he would choose to lay down his life for us. Praise God that I can come to be marked out, not for condemnation but for redemption. Praise God for that tiny bit of ash that says I do not have to fear because in Christ’s death, I live.