Ashes for everyone
February 5, 2021
About this time last year I was preparing for an Ash Wednesday service and trying to teach my then 6-year-old son about that day on the church calendar. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a season of preparation before Easter. On that day, many Christians gather together to offer songs and prayers of confession and to receive ashes, an ancient symbol of repentance, in the shape of a cross on their foreheads.
As I talked with my son about this practice he said, "Do you put ashes on everyone?" I got this mental image of me walking down main street, smudging ashy crosses on the foreheads of everyone I passed. "Not everyone," I said, "just the people who come to the service."
The crosses we take up on Ash Wednesday are serious reminders of who we are and where we stand. We are sinners standing before the throne of a righteous, holy, merciful God. They are the ashes of repentance, of recognizing that the world is not right and it's our fault. They are the reminders of our need for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for mercy. When we take those crosses on our heads, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) becomes "WE have sinned and fall short." These ashes remind us of our need for a Savior. They remind us of the world's need for a Savior.
The ashes are shaped in a cross as a reminder that sin is not the final word. Our Savior has come, forgiveness is ours. When we repent, when we turn away from the old things and toward the One who makes all things new, we find mercy for our sin and new life we never could have imagined before. So, though a service of repentance and ashes is a somber one, it also declares our hope and our joy.
That early morning conversation last year has had me thinking, though. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are not just for the church. They are not just for the church members who show up for a service. They are not just for the church members who stay home. They are not just for the church, they are for everyone.
As Christians take the ashes on ourselves, we are declaring to the world that the world is not right and repentance is needed everywhere, by everyone. We take these ashes not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the world. So that everywhere we go with cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, we are saying silently and boldly, "Repent and believe the Good News." And we are declaring that forgiveness has come, mercy is poured out for all who will believe. "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24).
This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 17th. I invite you to find a service to participate in. Join together with the people of God to confess, to repent, and to receive the pardon of Jesus Christ.