We begin in the mud of ashes, a journey in the dark shadow of the cross, knowing it’s a shadow cast by the glorious light of the resurrection. Why begin Lent with ashes?
In the Bible ashes, often paired with sackcloth, a coarse and uncomfortable material, symbolize repentance, humility, and/or mourning in the aftermath of disaster or impending potential doom. Upon encountering God after seriously questioning God’s justice in the midst of his own great suffering, Job repents in dust and ashes. The king of Nineveh, with Jonah’s reluctant pronouncement of looming judgment, fasted in sackcloth and repented in ashes. Ashes remind Christians of some of the first words of our Savior’s preaching, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Ashes also remind us of the righteous judgment of God that stands against us because of sin, as well as its penalty, which is death. The penalty for rebellion against God’s law, is “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Although physical death is included, the worst of it is spiritual death, being cut off from God, the source of life and blessing.
Accepting the black mark of ashes on our forehead at the beginning of lent symbolizes our acceptance of the righteous judgment of God against us as sinners. It is to confess, as did Daniel on behalf of Israel as he sought God’s face through prayer and fasting in sackcloth and ashes, that we were and are wrong to break God’s commandments and that God’s judgment against us is right and just (see Daniel 9:3-19).
Nevertheless, the mark of the ashes in the sign of the cross reminds us of God’s mercy because His only Son, the perfectly holy and righteous One, took the penalty that we deserved and “bore our sins in his own body” (1 Peter 2:24) with the result that we who were spiritually dead in sin received new life through forgiveness by the canceling of the debts and just legal decrees that stood against us, which “he set aside nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15).
The mark of ashes also reminds us of our need to take up our cross daily, to die to sin, to “put to death” any lingering attachments to the old age, the fallen world that is passing away, and any remaining corrupt desires and habits of our old selves before we were born anew into the kingdom of God (Colossians 3:1-17). We engage in this discipline of lent, not to be saved, but because we are saved; and because we are saved, we know we are being saved daily as we grow into “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
The ashes remind us that “in the midst of life we are in death.” The sign of the cross reminds us that “our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). It is He who sent his very own Son to die for us so that we could live for Him.
In Christ we can live as those who are prepared to die, to die daily to sin, and, therefore to die in hope at our appointed day to stand before the judge of all the earth (Hebrews 9:27). We die in the black shadow of the cross but also in the light of the resurrection. When we are prepared to die; truly we are prepared to live, knowing that the one who formed us from the carbon dust of creation to begin with will from the ashes and dust of death raise us to new life, daily, and on the last day. Are you prepared to die?
This lent with my cross, I also plan to take up more often my pen and laptop to write, at least weekly to be specific. This won’t be an easy commitment for me, a husband and father of five and an only child of an elderly mother, and a pastor with all of the unexpected that comes along with the normal routine. Writing for me sometimes, perhaps most of the time, also comes with great difficulty, partly because of ADD, and partly because of anxiety about how it will be received. The later is not only because of how it will be received by human readers, but also by God.
For more than one reason I write with fear and trembling. I write and speak knowing that it is more important to please God than people, yet I do so with the desire to inform and see lives transformed through the Word of God as it is conveyed through this very fragile, and sometimes empty-headed, vessel. My prayer is that my increased productivity with the keyboard will be honoring to God and a blessing in some way to His people.
May this season of Lent be a period of accelerated growth for the elect and God’s kingdom.