This was originally written as a devotional for our church choir, and it received a couple of favorable comments, so I’m sharing it with a wider audience. Full disclosure: I did not attend an Ash Wednesday service this year or receive ashes as discussed here.
The season of Lent begins with the distribution of ashes. Growing up in the Catholic tradition I heard the priest invoke Genesis 3 as he applied ashes to each forehead: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” As I think about that, though, I think of dust as the general product of decay. Ashes, on the other hand, have a more specific origin.
In order for ashes to be produced, some bit of once-living organic matter is destroyed by burning. A piece of wood, some leaves. OK, some metals like magnesium burn and produce ash. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are traditionally produced by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. So the use of ashes carries with it a sense of loss. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we find references to ashes as an emblem of mourning and, by extension, of repentance through which we mourn a broken relationship with God. And it’s not a token quantity, as our practices dictate, but almost an article of clothing.
Job spoke about repenting in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). Jeremiah called for the people of Jerusalem to mourn in sackcloth and ashes (Jeremiah 6:26). Mordecai clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes when he learned of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:1). Daniel fasted and put on sackcloth and ashes to ask the Lord to restore Jerusalem (Daniel 9:3). The king of Nineveh covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes when Jonah finally delivered his message (Jonah 3:6). Jesus pronounced his woes on Chorazin and Bethsaida, saying that Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes if they had seen the miracles that Jesus had performed (Matthew 11:21 Luke 10:13).
In this momentary season of contemplation and mourning we have the benefit of knowing what none of them but Jesus could know: All of our our mourning ultimately will end in the joyful restoration described by Isaiah 61:1-3.
May God bless you in your Lenten observances. Thanks as always for stopping by!