by Pastor Brian Phillips

As we prepare to begin our journey through Lent – a journey of fasting, repentance, and prayer – the encouragement and perspective gained on Ash Wednesday is extremely helpful. The Ash Wednesday service… 

  • Unites us in a "mere Christian" practice, a tradition observed by our Christian brothers and sisters through the ages, and around the world

  • Provides encouragement and fellowship with one another as we begin Lent

  • Reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ

  • Nourishes our souls through the Lord’s Supper

  • Calls our minds back to the purpose of fasting

  • Helps focus our fasting on Christ, not on our own “suffering” or what we are “giving up”

  • Gives us an opportunity to pray for one another

  • Allows for a time of focused prayers of repentance and confession

But, what about the ashes?  First of all, the imposition of ashes is optional.  It is not a sacrament, but it is a powerful reminder of our own mortality, and therefore, of the great attention we should give to repentance and our walk with Christ.  One Anglican pastor recently reflected over the sobering act of applying the ashes:

“—An older man shuffles forward to receive the ashes. This would be his last time…and he knows it. The cancer has eaten away at his esophagus and the doctor gave him less than nine months. He gets these eleven words more than most: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—A new mother presents her sleeping baby. The skin of the child is soft and pure…it seems too harsh to remind this woman that her child will die; would go down to the dust. How awful! But it is true. None are exempt. The words are hard to say, but I say them anyway and try to not wake the child. I touch the new forehead lightly: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

—Once, a business woman stood before me in a smart looking suit. She was dressed for success. She had come during her lunch hour to our service at high noon. I press the ashes on her forehead and then realize that I am smudging her makeup too. Her careful facade has been marred by the sign of the cross. I wonder if she will make a quick trip to the bathroom to reapply her cosmetics. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Second, the imposition of ashes does have a biblical basis, in addition to centuries of Church practice.  For more on that, take a look at "Ash Wednesday: What & Why." 

If you decide not to receive the imposition of ashes, you will still greatly benefit from the Ash Wednesday service and you will not be out of place. 

If you do receive the imposition of ashes, do so humbly, as a reminder of your own mortality and need for repentance.  Remember the warnings of Jesus - “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

We can all be tempted to parade our “righteousness,” even in circumstances that should create humility.  When we fast or – as in the case of Ash Wednesday – begin our fast, we should never do so to be seen by men.  Once the ashes are applied, remember their meaning – repent.  Then, pray, wash them off, and walk in obedience. 

Finally, remember that the ashes are made in the shape of the cross for a reason – there is hope in Christ!  In Christ alone do we rise from the ashes to new life.