Do I have to use ashes on Ash Wednesday?

No, of course you don’t. Ashes are just a symbol. Like birthday cakes, in fact. Or weddingash_wed rings. Or flags.

Wait a minute. Those symbols are pretty important. I like having a birthday cake at my birthday party (especially if it’s a carrot cake), I wear my wedding ring all the time, and I’m proud to wear my maple leaf pin on Canada Day.

This is what we human beings do. We have this tendency to take physical signs and give them non-physical meanings. A handshake means we’re friends, or maybe it seals the deal. A kiss means love (or should, anyway!). Shaking your fist means anger or hatred. We hold hands to say grace (or maybe bow our heads and close our eyes). Some of us make the sign of the cross, or kneel to pray.

Some of those signs are even more important, because Jesus has commanded us to do them. We baptize people in water to make them his disciples. We take bread and wine, give thanks to God, and share them together in memory of his death for us and as a way of entering into the power of his saving act. The Church has come to call those signs ‘sacraments’.

Ashes on Ash Wednesday aren’t a sacrament, but they are biblical. In the Old Testament people were a little more demonstrative than we tend to be. We read in several places of people tearing their clothes, putting on sackcloth instead, and putting ashes on their heads as a sign of their overwhelming sorrow. Sometimes it’s sorrow at some dreadful misfortune that has happened (David’s daughter Tamar did it when she was raped by her half-brother Amnon – see 2 Samuel 13:18-19). But at other times it’s sorrow at their own sinfulness and their need for repentance. So in Daniel 9:3 Daniel says,

‘So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’.

And then there follows the prayer of penitence that Daniel prayed on behalf of all Israel.

So our ashes on Ash Wednesday are a symbol of our sorrow for our sins and our desire to repent. They have no power in themselves – they aren’t a sacrament – but they are meaningful if our desire to repent is meaningful.

Today is Ash Wednesday, when we begin our forty days of penitence (more about this tomorrow). There are all sorts of opportunities to come together with our fellow Christians today. Some churches have noon hour services, some met in the early morning today, and many will have services tonight. Make time. Don’t rush this (I’m not a fan of the ‘ashes to go’ movement, because I think genuine penitence needs more than a quick prayer at a bus stop); take time to pray, to think about your life, and to ask God to guide you about the changes that need to be made. This will be our agenda for the forty days of Lent. Use the sign of ashes as a concrete symbol of your desire for this Lent to make a difference in your life.

May the Lord help us all to observe a holy Lent, in which we follow Jesus ever more closely in the ways of the kingdom of God.


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