Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 6-weeks period that ends with Easter Sunday. Why start with ashes? In churches that celebrate this tradition, the ashes are obtained by burning the palm leaves used for the previous Palm Sunday event. Ashes in the Lenten period reminds us of four important points.
Firstly, ashes reminds us of our humanity. In Genesis 2:7, man were created out of the dust of the earth. The Hebrew word for dust may also be translated as ashes. Normally we will avoid getting our hands and bodies dirty by dust and ashes. This ceremonial act of having ashes applied to our foreheads is to accept that we are created beings and our need to relate to our Creator in a meaningful way. In our hurried consumer driven society, we often lose our humanity. We use people and forget about God. Ashes brings us back to the basics. For all our power, wealth, fame and abilities, we are but ashes and dust. We need to recover our role to love one another and to love God.
Secondly, ashes reminds us of our mortality. We die and our bodies decompose into ashes. Adam and Eve were told that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 NRSV). In the eastern traditions, ashes and sackcloth were used as signs of mourning. We live in a society in denial of death and dying. Marketing and the technologies of modern medicine gives us the illusion that we will live forever. Ashes reminds us that we are mortal. Our time on earth is limited. It forces us to reevaluate how we are to spend our remaining years so as to make them meaningful.
Thirdly, ashes reminds us of the call to repentance. When the reluctant prophet Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh, the King and his people put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. God saw this act of repentance and spared the people (Jonah 3:1-10). Sometimes, our theology has so much Triumphalism that we forget we are sinners by nature and need forgiveness and mercy. Many of us are in bondage to fear, addictions and unbelief. Lent is a period to face, confess, repent and break our bondage.
Finally, ashes which begins the Lenten period ends in the resurrection on Easter Morning. This is the Gospel that offers hope to our humanity, mortality and sinful nature. Christ, God incarnate, by his suffering has delivered us. We, who were captives and in bondage in the ashes, have been set free. From the dust and ashes of death and suffering arose in Easter new hope and new life.
May this Lenten period be a meaningful period for meditation and reflection for you.
Photo by Alex Tang