WHAT IS ASH WEDNESDAY?

Today is Ash Wednesday.  But not everyone understands what Ash Wednesday is all about. 

Much like the entire season of Lent, it’s a time to reflect on what it means to be people of the cross.  Lent is a 40-day journey that gives Christians time to deliberately pause and ponder what Good Friday means for our lives on this mortal coil. 

To believe that God died for you is a weighty thing, indeed! 

But Ash Wednesday is set apart from our regular Lenten-tide by the distinguishing mark of ashes.  Much like the many occasions in the Old Testament when God’s people would be overcome by God’s judgment for their sin and rebellion and cover themselves with sackcloth and ash as a sign of their repentance, so too, we begin our journey to the cross during Lent with a powerful reminder of who we are–sinners in need of absolution and grace.

Then there is the rather bizzare Old Testament instructions that God gives, whereby a priest slaughtered a red heifer, sprinkled its blood toward the Lord’s altar, and burned its body, along with cedar, hyssop, and scarlet. This strange gray cocktail was kept in ready supply. You can read about it all in Numbers 19.  When a person had touched death, the concoction was mixed with water and sprinkled on them. God placed within these ashes the fire of a promise: whoever they touched, that person became clean. They could step into the Lord’s sanctuary. Stand before his altar. Worship him as those whose bodies had been purified.

Death touches us!  “Dust to dust… ashes to ashes… earth to earth…”  Those are some of the last words put over our bodies in death, before we are laid into the ground.  “From dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  Those were the words God’s spoke over Adam after his sin and rebellion in the garden.  These words remind us that we have no standing before God, who sees both today and tomorrow.  Indeed, all that we are today, has little meaning in the eyes of the God who knows the day of our death just as clearly as He knows the events of today. 

As sinners, then, we cry out like the people of Nineveh in the days of Jonah: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (Jonah 3:6-9).  So, we also cover ourselves as they did, not to hide our sin but show our repentance.  We cover ourselves with ash, as a symbol of our mortality, repentance and our guilt before the God who judges heaven and earth.    

But the church has taken this symbolism one step further over the centuries.  As the picture above illustrates, it’s been the long-standing practice of the church to take the palm branches used on the previous Palm Sunday and burn them on Ash Wednesday.  These palms once symbolized our praise, just like the crowds of Jerusalem praised Jesus as their Messiah and King as He entered the city on Palm Sunday, but then, just five days later, shouted for His death and destruction. “Crucify Him!”  

So, too,  we take our palms and reduce them to ash and cover our foreheads with it and begin our path to the cross, asking for the Lord’s forgiveness for all the times that we so hollowly praise Him with one side of our mouth, and despise His name with the other—all the times we live in ways that are less than holy and right in His holy sight. 

But this is the most important part: This ash that we place upon our foreheads is made not as a random mark, but imposed in the shape of a cross—the shape of mercy and grace.  The ashen cross reminds that for all our guilt and sinful mess, God has reached down and given us His grace.  He’s given us a Savior.  He’s transformed sinners like us into His children.  We moisten our ashes with water, a reminder of baptism, and the ultimate gift of adoption into God’s family. 

All this makes Ash Wednesday a powerful service and a wonderful blessing!  It’s good to set things straight and get on the right path.  May God bless your Lenten preparations this year.

 See you in Church, tonight! 

Joyfully,

Pastor Aaron Kalbas

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