But Why Ashes?
This evening begins a spiritual journey called Lent, a tradition of the church for nearly two millennia. Lent spans forty days, from now until Holy Saturday, the day before Resurrection Sunday. In the early days of the Church, this time was set aside for new followers of Jesus to fast to get their hearts ready to be baptized on Easter Sunday. And since these new members were to be received into a living community of faith, the entire community was called to prepare their hearts too. It was also a time when those whose sins had separated them from the Body of Christ would prepare to reconcile with the community.
In modern times, we use this time as a chance for all Christians to prepare to celebrate Easter. It is a longstanding practice but has many variations. Often, there is time set aside specially to listen to God, to be still before Him, to make room to pray, and to fast as a part of daily life. It can look like silence to examine our hearts for what God might be saying to us, or service to the community in place of a beloved activity. Lent is making space for God to reveal what he needs from us, to ask forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, to see ourselves honestly in contrast to His desire for us to live a holy life, to work at reconciling what happened to us, our responses to it, to see God’s love and grace ready to take it all on Himself if we just let Him take it.
This day reminds us we come to God completely unworthy, and that we have nothing to offer to get rescue and healing for ourselves. We trust God is at work in it all. The day reminds us of any attempt at living right before God falls short, but God sees our limitations and His grace brings us fully to Him. This day reminds us how much we need Grace to live transformed in a way, that despite it all, we reflect God’s love to others. We come this day to renew our commitment to “be still and get to know God” as we continually confess our need for God to be with us always, to change us as He sees fit, for the wideness of His mercy to surround us.
We are invited to walk these 40 days together and allow God to examine our hearts while we wait in silence, to read and meditate of Scripture, to petition our Heavenly Father for His revealing of all that needs to be made clean, to concede our need as individuals and community of God to lament our sins, both what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone, and to genuinely speak the words of repentance, to say I’m sorry, to turn away from self and to Him, and accept His gift of grace as we humbly lay all our needs and burdens and shortcomings down at His feet (adapted from Dennis Bratcher, The Voice)
But why ashes?
These words are repeated when ash is applied:
“By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust, you will return.”
From the beginning, Genesis 3, we see ourselves dependent on Him for life. The word “dust” means ~ out of the soil or garbage heap, nothingness. It’s not God saying we are worthless but rather, we are His creation solely. He made us out of nothing.
Yes, we are out of nothing BUT also, fearfully and wonderfully created, yes, in His Image made, yes, but also, needy, fading, diminishing without the merciful touch upon us of God’s digging us out of the dust hands. So, we wear the ashes on this day, a symbolic reminder of our humanity, which needs His healing to be wholly who we are created to be.
But why ASHES? In the moment of receiving, with the touch, we see reminded that we need Him. We wear the ashes to pay attention to the fact we are poorer without Him.
You may say, “thank you no, God reminds me of my frailty in the burdens and scars I bear, from this long-enduring.”
Yes, we gently say, we do not minimize the heartache carried into this very space, and we say,
"Have mercy O God on us, all of us, who carry pain from any reason.
See our frailties, and how we cope and remind us
that we are safe in your presence,
that you love us with an everlasting love, no matter what,
that we are all the same, yes, no matter what has happened to us,
we are still, by God’s hand, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image,
we are all the same at the foot of your cross.
You bear all our sins and failings, the same.
And your grace, it's the same too.
As we remember your death on a cross,
we have a chance to remember you suffered too,
so you know, you get it, and your greatest hope for us is to be whole and holy,
as you always intended for us."
But why ashes?
We wear it as an outward sign of our awareness that healing and rescuing are going on inside, to say “we know where we come from, where we’re going, and the transforming work God wants to do in us.” And if you hear the words “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” as ashes are placed, don’t be afraid. Be thankful, for He wants us to receive what He’s offering, to love us no matter, to say our sorrows out loud, to bring shame into the light and see it for what it is, to know He can make us whole, to follow Jesus, to live and love how He did, in obedience to the Father.
That is why the Lord says, “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts. Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Don’t tear your clothing in your grief but tear your hearts instead. Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.” (From Joel 2)
But why ashes?
We wear ashes to say
“God’s not done. And I’m not alone”.