(#1 of 6 weekly Lenten reflections)
This past Wednesday — known on the Christian liturgical calendar as “Ash Wednesday” — marked the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. The name derives from the practice of using ashes (often from the burnt remains of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday ritual) to mark the foreheads of believers with the sign of the cross, as a symbol of penitence.
I didn’t grow up in the church, let alone one that observed the Ash Wednesday ritual (contrary to the stereotype, it’s not exclusive to Roman Catholics). The first time I saw someone with their forehead marked in this way, the cross had already been smudged beyond recognition. I wanted to say something — “Hey, buddy, you’ve got something on your face right there” — but thought it would be too embarrassing. I then saw others with similar smudges, and being a reasonably intelligent person, figured something must be up.
In Scripture, ashes symbolize humility and mortality, sorrow and repentance. As early as Genesis 18:27, we see Abraham referring to himself as “dust and ashes” as he pleads with God over the fate of Sodom. Ashes from the remains of burnt offerings were mixed with water for purification rituals (e.g., Num 19). A variety of biblical characters, including Mordecai (Esth 4:1-3), Job (Job 42:6), and even the king of Nineveh (Jon 3:3-8) humbled themselves before God in ashes, and Jesus himself refers to sackcloth and ashes as a ritual of repentance (Matt 11:21).
To me, ashes make immediate intuitive sense as a symbol of humility and godly sorrow, a reminder of all that has gone up in smoke — or will, someday, whether during my lifetime or at the final judgment (e.g., 1 Cor 3:10-15). Worldly hopes, dreams, and markers of success. Egocentric self-concepts, including pride in my own goodness or professional competence. I can’t help but picture the books I’ve written, the pages of my curriculum vitae, all printed on paper, all eventually turned to ash. All that will remain is what God has made of my work for the sake of his kingdom. Can I imagine those ashes smudged onto my forehead as a reminder of the cross?
In the end, all earthly hopes are relative to the one eternal hope, the hope of resurrection into a renewed heaven and earth. Easter is coming again, with our risen Lord. Let us prepare for the arrival.