All are from the dust, and to dust all return ~ Ecclesiastes 3:20
Dust you are and to dust you shall return ~ Gen 3:19
My family lived lots of places when I was growing up. I recall geography impacting the kinds of comments ashy-faced kids would hear at school. When we lived where many of our neighbors came from Hispanic or Irish or Italian backgrounds, everyone assumed ashes meant you were Catholic. When we were in the middle of the country where those of Norwegian or German descent were more common, of course ashes meant Lutheran. And no matter where we lived, those ashes were a sign that spring break was just around the corner.
But that was then.
In recent years, more often than not, kind folks quietly let me know I’ve got a smudge on my face. Or occasionally a curious person will straight out ask why I’ve got black stuff on my face.
So, what do those ashes mean anyhow?
Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday of the seventh week before Easter and the first day of Lent. The day is named for the practice of imposing ashes in many Lutheran and Catholic congregations.
Using ashes as a sign of repentance is an ancient practice, and mentioned in the Bible (Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 6:26; Matthew 11:21). The early Christians adopted the use of ashes from Jewish practice as an external mark of penitence.
Ashes symbolize several aspects of our human existence:. Ashes remind us of God’s condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam in Genesis 3:19.
Ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used anciently to cleanse in the absence of soap.
Ashes mark out anticipation of the new life of Easter. Even on Ash Wednesday, this most penitential day, we receive ashes in the form of the cross, the same symbol placed on our bodies with water in our baptism.
Ashes remind us of the shortness of human life, for it is said as we are buried into the ground or as ashes are placed in a columbarium.
Ashes are a symbol of our need to repent, confess our sins, and return to God.
So the ashes on my forehead connect me to the earliest of days of our church. I join those of long ago in repentance, cleansing and renewal. And I have an opportunity for quiet witness, should anyone ask me about that smudge.
Sincere thank you to The Rev. Christynn Koschmann who provided the graphics and a fantastic Carbon Fast Calendar. The other resource you may see evidence of is the Lenten Devotional For the Beauty of the Earth, by Leah Schade, which you can use any year you like.