I smiled this morning as I checked my emails. First, I was encouraged by an elder to post a blog to prepare Pathway for this Sunday's service of ashes. A few moments after that email, I opened the email from our neighbor Suncrest Church. They are holding their first Ash Wednesday event next Wednesday. Pastor Greg had an explanation on why we put on ashes. My explanation here will be a bit deeper than his quick shout-out email, but it goes to show that putting on ashes for Lent is becoming increasingly used by churches to prepare for Lent, Good Friday, and Easter.
Ashes are a Biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times, the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one's head. While we no longer normally wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day. For many Christians, Ash Wednesday involves two distinctives: putting ashes on one's head, and observing a day long fast. I will not be making the call to fast at our service Sunday, but you are welcome to.
Why Sunday and not Wednesday? There is no Biblical mandate for putting on ash on Ash Wednesday. So, there is no violation of Biblical principle by doing it the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. We are simply using it as our preparation for the Lent season. It was more convenient to do so on Sunday, rather than gathering again on Wednesday.
What are some Biblical examples of people putting dust and ashes on their foreheads? Consider the following verses from the New International Version:
- "That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head."
(I Samuel 4:12)
- "On the third day a man arrived from Saul's camp, with his clothes torn and with dust on his head. When he came to
David, he fell to the ground to pay him honor." (II Samuel 1:20)
- "Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and
went away, weeping aloud as she went." (II Samuel 13:19)
- "When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him,
his robe torn and dust on his head." (II Samuel 15:32)
The origin of the custom of using ashes in religious ritual is lost in the mists of pre-history, but we find references to the practice in our own religious tradition in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes." (Jeremiah 6:26)
The prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, critiques the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate to please God, but in the process he indicates that this practice was well-known in Israel: "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Isaiah 58:5). Isaiah was critiquing the Israelites' tendency to play sorry with sackcloth and ashes, but not be truly sorry as evidenced by changing lives. This is just another way the Lord is telling us not to perform religious acts for public recognition. We don't wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness but to acknowledge that we are a community of sinners in need of repentance and renewal.
The prophet Daniel pleaded for God to rescue Israel with sackcloth and ashes as a sign of Israel's repentance: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes." (Daniel 9:3)
Perhaps the best known example of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God's command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, his preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried to the king of Nineveh. "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes" (Jonah 3:6). In other words, the king of Ninevah used ashes at his conversion to expression his sorrow for his sin.
On Sunday Pathway will join the Biblical witnesses and the church of Jesus Christ in putting on ashes in sorrow over our sin. We will do this at the end of the service after a time of teaching about the practice. Children are welcome to participate as well.