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Why ashes?

Today is Ash Wednesday, so what does that mean?

Well, that depends on who you are. If you come from a Roman Catholic background, then Ash Wednesday may be an important day of fasting and repentance. If you come from a more liturgical Protestant background, then you might remember an evening service where the pastor placed ashes on your forehead. If you don’t have one of these backgrounds, then Ash Wednesday might simply mean eating leftover fastnachts and realizing that Easter isn’t too far away.

Having grown up in a fairly traditional and liturgical United Methodist church, I remember Ash Wednesday services and having ashes spread on my forehead. However, I can’t tell you what the message or theme of the service was. Ash Wednesday simply meant that Lent was here, and that meant Easter was close.

So this year, I did some quick research into the meaning of Ash Wednesday, and the simplest answer I came up with was repentance. In marking the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday kicks off the preparation for Easter, but it does so in a somber way. It challenges us to face our own sinfulness and frailty. In fact, the traditional words uttered by a pastor or priest when placing the ashes are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This idea of dust to dust, ashes to ashes, is one that many pastors, including myself, use in a graveside committal following a funeral. Death and its weight are felt when these words are spoken. Therefore, the use of this phrase conveys a very somber and heavy tone. And so it should. It’s an uncomfortable truth that death is part of the story of Easter.

When we think of Easter, we think of joy, life, and freedom; and so we should. Easter’s setting within the season of spring further reinforces this theme of new life and redemption. However, there is no new life without the death of the old. There is no redemption without the recognition of guilt. Therefore, Ash Wednesday, set in the cold, dark winter, reminds us of who we are. Without Christ, we are sinners deserving of death. Without Christ, we are mere ashes in the wind, tossed to and fro. This is an uncomfortable truth that we don’t like to face, but the ashes of this day force us to do just that. It forces us to realize and remember that it was our sin that drove Christ to the cross; it was our death penalty that He served. And without Him, we are as lifeless as burnt-up ash.

Let this thought humble you to your core. Let the weight of this day sink in. But, don’t stay there. Don’t sit forever in the darkness and despair, for the glorious truth is that the darkness of this day has been defeated. The weight of our sin has been lifted; the power of death has been broken. While without Christ, we are heavy laden; in Christ, we are free. While without Christ, all is lost and darkness reigns; In Christ, hope springs eternal and light shines brightly. While without Christ, we are little more than ashes; in Christ, we are more than conquerors.

So today, no matter what background you come from, no matter what Ash Wednesday has meant to you in the past, I encourage you to take a moment and ponder the weight of this day. Take some time and allow yourself to process the darkness of a life without Christ. Stop for a minute of intentional, humble repentance. And let the realization of the darkness draw you ever closer to the Light.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5, ESV).

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