God’s people have been putting ashes on their heads as a sign of sorrow and repentance since at least the time of King David. Even before that, Abraham acknowledged that before God he was nothing but dust and ash. Throughout the Old Testament ash was a symbol of repentance and penitence.
The early church picked up on that symbolism. Christians who had walked away from their faith would cover themselves in ashes in penitence when they wanted to repent of their sins. That practice faded from the church but the ashes remained.
The ashes poured over penitent Israelites and returning church members are seen today in Ash Wednesday. While modern Christians don’t douse themselves with ashes and put on a potato sack, the attitude remains the same. When we receive the ash on our foreheads we are harkening back to the hearts and attitudes of God’s people across millennia.
Like Abraham we acknowledge that we are nothing but dust and ash compared to God.
Like the Israelites, we acknowledge that we can only truly come before God when we recognize our brokenness.
Like the early members of the church, we acknowledge that it is only through repentance that we can be brought back into a right relationship with God and his church.
And while those attitudes in and of themselves are enough, it never hurts to have a symbol that we can carry with us.
There is some trepidation when it comes to Ash Wednesday, though. In the United States, Ash Wednesday is heavily associated with Roman Catholicism. But Ash Wednesday’s roots go further back than even the Catholic Church.
They go back to Abraham.
They go back to the nation of Israel.
They go back to the earliest days of the church.
And even though those roots go back over 3,000 years, they can still be planted within our hearts on March 1. Ash Wednesday has long been observed by many Protestant traditions including Presbyterians and Lutherans. By celebrating Ash Wednesday with them we are affirming our own mortality and our need for repentance. We may be nothing but dust and ash compared to God, but we are worthy enough in his eyes that he sent his only Son to die for us.
Ash Wednesday also helps us ready ourselves for Lent, the season leading up to Easter. Lent mirrors Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect before celebrating his resurrection. Lent isn’t about what we give up, but carrying with us the attitude of repentance and our need for a savior, which we recognize on Ash Wednesday.
So when we gather on Ash Wednesday as God’s people, we are participating in a tradition that goes back thousands of years. More importantly, though, we are embracing the only attitude that can bring us back into a right relationship with God. An attitude of penitence, repentance and gratitude for everything that God has done for us.