Our focus today as we start Lent is on the ash in Ash Wednesday. What is the significance of ashing? Why does it matter that we adorn ourselves in an ash cross? And how can we reflect our faith in Christ with more than a mark on our skin for others to see in the weeks to come?
The Bible we read is full of symbolism, as of course you might expect from a religious text. One such symbol that comes up time and time again is the idea of ashes and sackcloth: they come up typically at times of woe and strife. So today on Ash Wednesday is where the symbol of ashes becomes an important focus for services – at churches all around the world.
The idea of sackcloth and ash is born from a desire to outwardly show others the repentance of our hearts, to symbolise disgrace, mourning and turning away from our wrongs. In Old Testament times, the practitioner would often do so sat in their sackcloth garment amongst ashes with ashes on their head.
I like my soft woollen jumpers, especially at this colder time of year and a garment made from rough spun goat hair is going to be somewhat less comfortable to wear – itchy, unyielding and coarse, sackcloth is not something you can find at the Edinburgh Wool Mill on Lymington high street. Ashes likewise are not a beautiful perfume or talc but rather the discarded remains of what once was, but now consumed by fire. Ashes are fine particulates that irritate the lungs – light weight to float easily through the air and up one’s nostrils.
In Esther chapter 4, it’s an outward demonstration of the grief felt at the loss of someone important as “in every province, wherever the King’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes”. In first Samuel chapter 16, it becomes an outward symbol of the inner condition as David exclaims after being forgiven by God “You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”.
Ashes aren’t just something from the Old Testament though and the early Church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. In his book, De Poenitentia, the author Tertullian in the second century AD prescribed that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” Later in the third century, Eusebius – a famous early Church historian – recounted in his History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. It was common during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.
As we come to our modern day, ashes are an important part of how we start the 40 days of Lent that lead up towards Easter. Ashes are what remains from burning and we’ve been asking in recent weeks for the palm crosses given out at Palm Sunday last year to be returned – as we use ashes made from these for today. Rachel blesses the ashes and will impose them on our foreheads, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
So what’s the point? Well, as we begin this season of Lent we are in preparation for Easter. It’s a time in which we must remember the significance of the ashes we have received: as from Old Testament times, we mourn for and do penance for our sins. We bend our hearts from the luxury of our lives and focus on our Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and rose for our salvation. We renew the promises made at our baptism, when we died to an old life and rose to a new life with Christ. Finally, we strive to live the kingdom of God now and look forward to its fulfillment in Heaven.
There are many ways we show our faith and today, we do so with a physical mark which I for one will not clean away as I leave tonight – let it be a sign for others of what I believe in. However, the next forty days, as we countdown to Easter through Lent are just as important and indeed it’s not the outward sign of faith in what we wear or how we are adorned that matters: here is a time, more than any other, where through focusing on the life and sacrifice of Jesus should ensure that through our words, our manner and our actions, our faith is clear for all to see.