You might see some folks walking around with ashen crosses on their foreheads today.
You might be one of those folks. I am.
Some Christian denominations observe Ash Wednesday. Others do not, since the imposition of ashes is not explicitly commanded in Scripture. Whether your church chooses to participate in the imposition of ashes or not is not the main point. The main point is what the ashes symbolize, and that is something that every orthodox Christian church agrees on. We are sinners, who have fallen short of the glory of God and are brought near to Him again only through the death of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24).
As I said before, some of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ do not observe Ash Wednesday. That’s fine. It is never once mentioned, let alone commanded, in Scripture. But for those of us who do, I think it’s a very special day. For all its somberness, it gives us a chance to come together with other believers, and acknowledge our sins.
In the Old Testament especially, ashes were a sign of mourning. When David was distraught, he took poetic liberty and wrote that he ate ashes like bread (Psalm 102:9a). In Job 42, Job repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). When Jonah warned the people of Ninevah about God’s impending judgment, their king sat in ashes (Jonah 3:6). Even in the Gospels, Jesus mentions cities of old which He said would have repented in ashes long ago if in the same circumstance as the cities to which He spoke (Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13). It was a common practice for God’s people to wear ashes as they mourned their sin and sought Him with increased intensity.
There’s something sobering about that. I think that as modern Christians, we have a tendency to focus solely on our forgiveness and not on our sins. (Don’t get me wrong there – our forgiveness in Christ should be at the forefront of our minds, but not at the expense of reflecting on why we need that forgiveness in the first place.) As believers, forgiveness comes free to us, but it was not free for our Lord. Christ gave it all – the righteous for the unrighteous, the spotless for the marred, the Son of God for my soul. The sins that nailed Christ to the cross are the sins represented by the crosses of Ash Wednesday.
The substance (the ashes) reminds us of our sin and its consequence. Following the fall of man, God said, “For you were made from dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19b). The shape (the cross) reminds us of our forgiveness.
Sometimes, symbols have double meanings. My campus pastor talked about this in chapel today. After Cain killed his brother, Abel, God marked him. No doubt, that mark identified him as a murderer, but it was also God’s way of protecting him from anyone who would seek to avenge Abel’s life by killing him (Genesis 4:15). In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel The Scarlet Letter, the scarlet “A” marks Hester Prynne as an adulteress. By the end of the novel though, many people come to interpret the “A” as “able,” rather than as “adulteress.” My ashes mark my sin. They identify me as one who has fallen short of the glory of God. But they also symbolize my forgiveness in Christ. He bore my punishment and died my death and secured my salvation.
Sinner that I am, I could never earn my way to heaven. But by grace, I have been brought near. By grace, I have been washed from all my iniquity and cleansed from all my sin (Psalm 51:2). And dear one, if you believe, so have you.