Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the liturgical calendar.
As a life-long member of the Church of Christ, that sentence would have made no sense to me just a few years ago. I had heard of Lent, although the usual context I had heard it was when someone from a tradition similar to mine was making jokes about it, but I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was or why anyone would need a special calendar just for church. Over the past few years I’ve grown to really appreciate Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent as an important time of repentance in my own spiritual walk. I also recognize that my faith tradition is deeply skeptical of liturgy and Church Tradition, and so I wanted to offer a rationale for why Ash Wednesday might be worth considering and participating in.
Ashes appear in Genesis 18 when Abraham, in his bargaining with God, refers to himself as “nothing but dust and ashes”. Abraham uses this phrase to comment on his own insignificance before God.
This might explain why ashes become a symbol of repentance and mourning in the rest of the Bible. In the book of Esther, Mordecai and the rest of the Jews put on sackcloth and ashes when they hears of the decree to allow the Jews to be killed. In Jonah 3, all of the Ninevites tear their clothes, and the king sits in ashes in an effort of repentance that ultimately results in God showing mercy to them and sparing their city.
By wearing or sitting in ashes, people place themselves before God as lowly and insignificant. Ashes become a symbol of submission that God is fully sovereign, and that the one in ashes throws themselves fully on the mercy of God to protect them, since they are inadequate to protect themselves.
Essentially, ashes are a symbol of humility and submission.
The Participation of the Church
Going back to the story of Jonah that I mentioned earlier, I think its significant that the whole city comes together in repentance. Jonah goes through the entire city of Ninevah and preaches a very simple sermon, “You are going to die.” There is no call for repentance. There’s no hope of mercy. There is only the promise of destruction and death.
And Ninevah responds as a whole – The people fast and put on sackcloth. The King sits in ashes and makes a decree that nobody in all of Ninevah–not even the animals–shall eat or drink anything! As a corporate group, they repent, deprive themselves, and humiliate themselves in sackcloth and ashes, prostrating themselves before God.
And because of their corporate repentance, God forgives them. God recognizes their humility, their submission, and their repentance as a group, and God relents. Corporate submission to God actually changes God’s mind. This is a big deal.
And this is what we seek to do on Ash Wednesday. To come together as a Church, lay ourselves down in a position of humility at the feet of God, to repent of our own ways and to adopt the ways of God, and to throw ourselves onto the mercy of God that God will restore us to who we were created to be.
So the beauty of an Ash Wednesday service is that the Church gathers together to submit and repent to God. The ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the attendees as a symbol that the Church is in a state of repentance, submission and humility. It’s a time when the Church comes together as a corporate whole to throw ourselves onto the mercy of Christ, and to reflect on our own inadequacy to save ourselves.
And this is something I think the Church desperately needs. In less liturgical denominational settings (like my native Churches of Christ), we tend to eschew symbolism in favor of straightforward teaching. We also tend to focus on individual interactions with God more than on communal expressions of repentance and submission. But there’s something powerful about a church that comes together as a whole to prostrate herself before God. There’s something powerful about the Church participating in a period of repentance and prayer together that you just don’t get from encouraging individuals to repent on their own. The Church could gain a lot by participating in this season of corporate repentance, recognizing our place before God, and totally submitting ourselves before God.
May we submit ourselves fully to God’s mercy, able to trust that we will be restored to God’s goodness.