On Wednesday, February 13th—Ash Wednesday—millions of men, women, children, and youth will participate in what is surely one of the most peculiar practices of the Christian tradition. One by one, they will willingly receive the imposition of ashes, a cross-shaped smudge on an otherwise ruddy forehead.
What an odd thing to do! On all the other 364 days of the year, we utilize mirrors and Kleenex for the purpose of making certain that there are no unsightly smudges whatsoever on our visage. On the occasion of Ash Wednesday, however—one day of the year—we actually go out of our way to place an unsightly stain upon ourselves. How bizarre is that?
Here is, I think, a pertinent question: Why?
Why do we do it? Why the unsightly smudge? What is the spiritual significance of the facial besmirching? Or, to put it in the vernacular of our day, what’s the deal with the ashes?
Here are a few responses to that question:
1. We wear the ashes as a sign of our Acknowledgement.
2. We wear the ashes as a sign of our Subordination.
3. We wear the ashes as a sign of our Humility.
What’s the deal with the ashes? First, The ashes function as a sign of our ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. More specifically, when we wear the ashes in the right spirit, we express outwardly our inward acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our neediness before God. The stain of the ashes dramatically calls to mind the stain of our sin, thereby compelling us to acknowledge both the reality of our iniquity and the urgency of our need for the only One who can cleanse us of sin’s pervasive stain.
A man said to me once, “It sure is a whole lot easier to confess someone else’s sin than it is to confess my own.”
It is most certainly the case that, like that man, we are often much more comfortable with second or third person confession than we are with a first person acknowledgement of our wrongdoing. It is far less of a vulnerable condition for us as long as we keep the focus on the sins of others. On Ash Wednesday, however, we do not wear someone else’s ashes. We wear our own. And, when we wear those ashes, we lay aside our proclivity for focusing on the sins of others long enough to acknowledge the depth and stain of our own personal condition of sin and our own personal need for divine grace. What’s the deal with the ashes? The ashes indicate an acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our neediness before God.
Second, we wear the ashes as a sign of our SUBORDINATION. More specifically, when we wear the ashes in the right spirit, we express our willingness to be subordinated to the Lordship and saving grace of Jesus Christ. The stain of the ashes is a visible reminder that we are neither self-sufficient nor self-reliant. Rather, our salvation is entirely dependent upon our willingness to be subordinated to a Redeemer who can make us holistically clean.
When I was ordained an elder back in 1994, the bishop placed around my neck a stole symbolizing the yoke of obedience. When I wear that stole, I am indicating my willingness to be subordinated to the to the covenant of ordination, to the ministry of the church, and to the calling of Jesus Christ.
Not all Christ-followers are called to ordained ministry—to wear stoles. But all Christ followers are called to be subordinated to the grace and the Way of Jesus Christ. In that regard, the ashes function like a liturgical stole for those who dare to wear them, reminding us of that salvific and liberating subordination. What’s the deal with the ashes? The ashes indicate our willing subordination to a Savior who raises us up from spiritual cinders.
Finally, we wear the ashes as a sign of our HUMILITY. One of the most substantive obstacles to faithful discipleship is an exaggerated sense of self-centeredness or self-importance. Please do not misunderstand me. In God’s eyes, it is most certainly true that each one of us is unequivocally precious. The biblical witness is clear about that. And yet, as precious as we are to our God, the salvation story does not center on us. Rather, the story centers on God and what God has accomplished both in us and for us.
In the orthodox Jewish faith, there is an important tradition. On their day of atonement, many orthodox Jews wear the garment in which they will one day be buried. They do this both to humble themselves and to remind themselves that they will one day return to dust. They wear the garment to help themselves to remember that the main character in their faith story is an eternal God, not any fragile human being.
On Ash Wednesday, figuratively speaking, we wear the garment in which we will one day be buried—the garment of ashes to which we will eventually return. We do not do this to be morbid. We do not do this to generate depression or despair. We do it to remember our place in the scheme of things. We do it to be humbled. We do it to remember that we are not the main character in the story of our life. God is.
What’s the deal with the ashes? They are not exclusively a “Roman Catholic thing” (as I have heard some Protestants describe them). They are Christ-follower’s sign of acknowledgment, subordination, and humility. I encourage you to receive the ashes meaningfully this year and to help others to receive them meaningfully as well. Allow the ashes to bring you into a deeper awareness of your desperate need for the only One who can cleanse us of our deepest stains. That One is Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, with whom we journey in the Lenten season, all the way to the cross and all the way to the empty tomb.