Today, Ash Wednesday, begins the 40 days of Lent. In several Christian traditions, the placement of ashes upon one’s forehead is a reminder of our mortality and our need to repent. As Abraham spoke to Almighty God, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” Adam was made from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). We each return to the dust and ash when our bodies die and decompose. We may not like to face that fact, but the truth keeps coming back.
Ashes are also a sign of repentance, our need to turn back to God. The book of Jonah describes how the people of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s message to turn back to God.
And Jonah cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. (Jonah 3:4-6).
The imposition of ashes also connects us to our baptism. Many Lutherans and others were baptized with water on their forehead. It was a sign of washing and renewal, of dying with Jesus and rising again to new life. Paul writes how baptism is connected to Jesus crucifixion and resurrection.
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11):
The ashes are thus a reminder that we have already died in our baptism. We died to sin and corruption, and have begun to live the new life in Christ. The ashes we place on our head will eventually wash away; the promise of our baptism is not so easily removed. The Holy Spirit holds us in Christ Jesus.
Lord Jesus, let me die to sin and death that I might live with you now and forever.