This past Wednesday, as I walked through an area mall, I noticed many people with ashes on their foreheads in commemoration of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. While we usually associate the use of ashes on that day with Catholics, there are Protestants from more formal traditions that also have the pastor put a spot or a cross of ash on their foreheads at an Ash Wednesday service. My daughter attended at Christian Reformed church for several years that practiced it.
I was talking to someone via email the other day about the possible Scriptural background for the custom. I remembered that ashes were utilized symbolically in more than one way in the Old Testament. The use we most commonly think about was as a symbol of repentance as exemplified in Daniel 9:3 and Job 42:6. They were also used to show grief as in the loss of a loved one; examples are Isaiah 61:3 and Jeremiah 6:26. These two were probably the most common. But in addition, there was a third use that is very important as a possible background and aid for understanding the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is not completely unrelated to the other two but has a unique emphasis. Ashes were applied to the body in the OT during times of severe fasting and prayer as a sign of abject humility. We can see this in Esther 4:1, 3 and in Isaiah 58:5. However, in the latter passage, while the text illustrates the practice, the prophet is warning the people because they did not practice the ritual with genuine hearts, which is always a danger.
Whether we symbolize it with ashes or not, part of the attitude of each of us as Christians on Ash Wednesday and indeed for all of Lent is humility before God. As believers, we do not need to mourn past sins that have been forgiven, which God has washed away and forgotten, but we do need to remember that we are not sinless (1 John 1:8) and we need at this season especially to pray with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23,24 KJV). That is a key to spiritual humility.
On Ash Wednesday
Ashes are everywhere, to mock the pride
That raged and leaped and perished in its flame,
Yet vanity within us has not died;
The cautery has left us much the same.
Before our bones are ashes, and our wills
Have forfeited all power to repent,
God, bend our stubborn spirits and our skills
To uttermost obedience this Lent.
Poem by Elinor Lennen
(Lenten-Easter Sourcebook, 1961 Charles Wallis, ed. P. 27)