Sin, legitimate longings that have gone astray.
Why ashes? If you lived in the Ancient Near East and you were “found out” in some kind of scandalous activity, and you wanted to “come clean” about it and own it, you covered yourself with ashes. It was a way of saying, “Yes I did this, I know it, I see my true situation.”
Throughout the centuries Christians have tied this idea particularly to the teaching of Genesis where it tells the story of human beings and how they were formed from the dust of the ground and because of our sin and rebellion we will return to that dust. It becomes a way of remembering vividly that my days are numbered, and it’s because things are not the way they are supposed to be. Sin ravages God’s Shalom in my life and in the world around me.
I tell the truth about myself with the ashes on my forehead. I’m a sinner in need of grace. But friends, remember also, the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. We are not without hope. We take our sins seriously with the ashes, we take God’s grace seriously by receiving them in the sign of the cross, because in the cross is the promise of resurrection, and new life in Christ right now.
Ash Wednesday is a reality check.
We too easily forget our Maker and Redeemer; replacing God with things and ambition. Lent is the season that does something about this situation. It calls us back to God, back to the basics, back to the spiritual realities of life.
It calls us to put to death the sin and the indifference we have in our hearts toward God and our fellow persons. And it beckons us to enter once again into the joy of the Lord–the joy of a new life born out of a death to the old life. That is what Ash Wednesday is all about–the fundamental change of life required of those who would die with Jesus and be raised to a new life in him.
The truth about ourselves awaits, and a reminder that God in his great love for us, promises new life in the midst of the old, new birth in the midst of the old, new creation in the midst of the old.