Why Ashes?

from the devotional book, "The Road to Resurrection"


When I talk to some Christians about Lent, they usually get on board when they recognize the benefits observing an annual church-wide season of fasting, prayer, and repentance. But when I talk to some Christians about day one of Lent, “Ash Wednesday,” they start to get a little nervous. The idea of a service in which a minister rubs ash on your face seems a little too ritualistic, a little too “Roman,” or maybe even a little too spooky.

If you have never been a part of the more liturgical streams of Christianity, the idea of Ash Wednesday can seem odd. Maybe you have noticed people walking around in public with a black cross smudged on their forehead and wondered what it was all about? If I’m being honest, there was a time when I was quite judgmental of people who observed Ash Wednesday. I wrote them off as people enslaved to religious ritual with no real personal expression of faith.

That attitude is called spiritual pride, it was sinful, and I needed to repent.

I changed my mind about Ash Wednesday several years ago when I attended my first Ash Wednesday service. One February, mostly out of curiosity, I decided to attend the midday Ash Wednesday service at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In this large, ornate, stained-glass sanctuary about a hundred people took their lunch breaks to receive the imposition of ashes.

Even as I walked in, I was still silently judging the whole thing. It was the kind of church that I would have normally judged to be spiritually dry and void of real communion with God and His Spirit. I judged them for their traditional decor, liturgical and ritualistic style, and what I perceived as their lack of passionate worship.
I was wrong.

When the pastor took the pulpit to read the scriptures and share a short message, his words cut to my heart. He spoke of how the ashes represent sorrow over our own sin and grief over our own mortality. They represent death and destruction that result from living in a fallen, sinful world. They remind us of the finite nature of humanity.

He reminded the congregation of our need as Christians to live humble, repentant lifestyles acknowledging that apart from Christ, we live hopeless lives of spiritual depravity. It was a stark reminder of my own desperate reliance on Christ.

I, an ordained minister, needed that day to hear a call to repentance. I needed to be reminded of my own sinfulness apart from the freely offered grace of God. I needed to be reminded that without grace I would have no future nor any hope. Life, I was reminded, apart from Christ is a life of sorrow and grief with no prospect of a better tomorrow.

I walked into the church full of spiritual pride. But I went to the altar rail, stood in front of a kind-faced female pastor garbed in a liturgical robe and stole, while she smeared ashes on my forehead. As she drew the ashen figure of a cross on my forehead, she lovingly and knowingly looked me in the eye and said, “Repent and believe the gospel.”

It is hard to stay prideful while you let someone rub dirt on your face. It is hard to stay prideful when someone, somehow, knows you need to repent and calls you out on it in the kindest way possible.

I’m usually the one preaching about believing the gospel. I’m used to being the one guiding people to repent and come to Christ. But that day, I needed the ashes, I needed the reminder, and I needed the gentle but loving rebuke.

I went from the minister straight to kneeling at the altar rail and I cried like a baby.

It is hard to stay prideful while blubbering at the altar in front of dozens of people walking by on their way to get a quick lunch. But I stayed and lingered in His presence as long as I could. That day, the Holy Spirit reminded me that I am but dust and my only hope is in the one who takes our ashes and gives us beauty. I was filled with gratitude at the love of God and that He would love someone like me.

Sometimes we need those reminders. Sometimes we need to experience the ashes in order to see the beauty. Sometimes we need to grieve over our own sinfulness in order to revive the joy of salvation.

Ash Wednesday may not be your cup of tea. That’s ok, no hard feelings. It’s not a requirement for salvation or even for spiritual growth. We should only ever participate in spiritual disciplines and practices if they are going to help us grow in God’s grace.

So, there is no pressure to participate. But there is an invitation: An invitation to step out of what we think we already know, repent of our spiritual pride and complacency, and be renewed by the grace of God through true repentance.