Today marks the beginning of Lent. Many Christians will gather at their church at some point today for a service of worship, and some of them will leave with an ash cross on their foreheads. For those of you like me who did not grow up in a church who celebrated Ash Wednesday, this ritual may seem a little odd or confusing. What do the ashes represent? And why do some Christians do this to mark the beginning of Lent?
First, it is helpful to remember what Lent is all about. It is the forty days (or forty six if you count Sundays) that lead up to Easter. In the early church, this time period was often used for teaching and instructing new believers who would then be baptized on Easter Sunday.
Over time, the season of Lent was expanded to include all Christians, not just new believers. Two main themes began to develop: an awareness and recognition of our sin and mortality. Lent is a time to remember that we are all sinners who fall short of God’s glory, and the wages for sin is death. This is not a condition that impacts only a select few. Every person is effected by sin. Recognizing our sin and mortality helps us to see our need for a Savior.
Second, Lent is a time to remember that, in spite of our sinfulness, God demonstrates his love toward us through Christ. On Good Friday, we remember the harsh punishment that Christ endured on our behalf. On the cross, he took our sin upon himself. On Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, we celebrate that Jesus Christ conquered sin and death. His atoning sacrifice on the cross overcame our sinfulness and mortality.
During the Lenten season, therefore, we carry these two ideas side by side. We are sinners who will one day be brought low by death. At the same time, however, we have a Savior who conquered sin and death on our behalf. We mourn, therefore, over our sin, yet celebrate and rejoice in our savior.
That brings us back to Ash Wednesday. Why the cross of ashes on our foreheads? To remind us of this dual theme. We are sinners, and therefore need to repent from our sin. In the Bible, ashes were often used to demonstrate grief or repentance. We are sorry for our sins and want to turn away from them. The ashes, however, are in the shape of a cross to remind us that our Savior has indeed come. The penalty for sin has already been paid.
The ashes remind us to turn away from our sin and turn toward our Savior. It’s a reminder that we need on Ash Wednesday, and, if we are honest with ourselves, everyday.
“For dust you are and to dust you will return”, therefore “repent and believe the good news!”