Fire, after it has done its job, leaves ashes. Look into any fire pit at a campsite and you’ll find the grey powdery leftovers of wood or anything that can be consumed by fire. Ashes are a fact of fire and a fact of life. What would move Christians to smear them on their foreheads? The simple answer is that it is a sign of repentance and remorse when we consider ourselves standing before a Holy God. Let me give you an example.
Billy had been caught one too many times sneaking a cookie from the top of the fridge – it’s thin mint season. He stood before his mom who was waiting for an explanation. He knew it was wrong. He knew the rules of the house. He knew what would happen to him – there were consequences for his actions after all. His mom just wanted to know why. What would you say? Have you ever been in Billy’s shoes? Maybe cookies aren’t your weakness, but I’m betting there is one. This situation is the heart of Ash Wednesday. The only difference is that you’re not standing before your mom or anyone else. You’re standing before your Holy God who sees all things, even the desires of your heart. What would you say?
Ash Wednesday gives the Christian an opportunity to respond to a Holy God. Abraham, while pleading for the city of Sodom, and the life of his nephew Lot, said it well, “though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Jesus uses the image as he rebukes the stubborn unbelief of Israel.
We are nothing but dust and ashes before our God. That may not seem like an inviting thought, but when we see what we truly are before God, we can clearly see his grace and mercy. God owes us nothing. We are worthy only to be consumed by the fire of his holiness, but God does not treat us as our sins deserve. Jeremiah calls to the broken sinner in his Lament over a sacked Jerusalem, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.”
When you come to Star of Bethlehem on Ash Wednesday, I will not impose ashes on your forehead, as is done in some churches. We will offer ashes just outside the sanctuary door if you would care to self-impose them. The ancient practice of ash imposition has been traced back to the 2nd century and the church father Tertullian. He explains the practice as an expression of grief over sin and repentance. It is in this spirit that we practice the ancient tradition. If you wish, you may apply a small pinch of ash to your forehead. The ashes are mixed with olive oil, not water, so that they will adhere at imposition.
Ash Wednesday also begins our journey into the season of Lent when where we follow Jesus to the cross. Starting the first Sunday in Lent we will view the passion accounts according to the Gospel of John. We will see the reality and the horror of what our sins deserve, and we will also see the great lengths our God went to that we might be forgiven. May God bless your Lenten journey.