Sadly, however, this incredibly holy day in the church year, like most things in the church, has been hijacked. It has been hijacked by attention seekers and the one-uppers. From glitter ash…. apparently made from the souls of dead unicorns and used to promote an agenda, to ashes to go, and drive-through services, the solemnity of the observance of Ash Wednesday has been thrown out the window to make way for special interest groups to have the spotlight thrust upon themselves for all the world to see.
It bothers me greatly to see that this solemn day is being used as a day to draw attention away from Christ. Don’t get me wrong, there is some good that can come from ministers being out in the town square with ashes to go. I know that some, like my friend David and his church are out doing ministry and meeting people where they need to be met, but there must be limits, and this holy day should not be used for secular purposes.
Now that we know what Ash Wednesday is not, I want to talk a little bit about what Ash Wednesday is and why Lent is 40 days long. According to the Gospels, Jesus spent the 40 days in the desert fasting. It was there that he was tempted by Satan and overcame those temptations. As Christians, we make preparations for Easter by fasting for the 40 days of Lent. To begin this 40 day fast we have a service called the Ash Wednesday service, where palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and the ash is used by the priest to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.
But why ashes? Ashes being used as a sign of repentance or of sorrow actually have a biblical basis at its roots. In the Old Testament, we see several examples of this. From the book of Job: ” I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah calls for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.” Both of these instances are outward signs of repentance using ashes. Ashes as a sign of repentance is not only something found in the Old Testament. We see ashes used in the New Testament as well; as a matter of fact, both in the Gospel of Saint Matthew and the Gospel of Saint Luke, Jesus speaks of the practice, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago (sitting) in sackcloth and ashes.”
Ashes are an important sign of our repentance. Ash Wednesday is the day that we mark our 40 day journey of repentance with a simple of act that has so much power and meaning behind it. When the priest or minister takes his thumb and dips it in the ashes and makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads we are acknowledging our willingness to start the journey to the cross with Christ. To reflect on our own faults, to strive to be better Christians, to outwardly say we are sinners in need of a savior. There is nothing political about Ash Wednesday. The only focus should be on those words, “you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Let us pray: Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.