Text: Genesis 3:17-19, Job 42:1-6, Romans 3:23, James 5:13-16
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These are the words a priest utters as he smears a cross of ashes onto his congregant’s forehead during an Ash Wednesday service. It’s a somber declaration. In fact, some instead say, “Remember that you have to die.”
For more than a thousand years, Christians around the world have begun the Lenten season this way: with the sober acknowledgement that with humanity came sin, and with sin came death. We are free, but not required, to do the same.
So what is Ash Wednesday, and why do many Christians observe it?
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. During Lent, we focus on our need for the death and resurrection of Jesus; we focus on our need to be forgiven. Ash Wednesday is a day where we take a page from the book of Job and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). We remember that from the dust we were made and to the dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). We remember that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, and yes, we all must die (Romans 3:23).
Ash Wednesday is a day of hope. Without Christ, the words “remember that you have to die” are hard ones. But with Christ, they are a reminder that, though our bodies will one day return to dust, we have already been given the hope of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to publicly profess our faith. The ashen cross the congregant wears is an outward sign of both repentance and hope. People see the mark of the cross at their work, in class, and at the grocery store. Wearing the ashes is a way to repent of our rebellion against God and “confess our sins one to another” (James 5:16).
On Ash Wednesday we admit our limits and acknowledge the brevity of this life. Whether in a formal Ash Wednesday service or privately in our homes, we can use tomorrow, the first day of the Lenten season, to remember that from the dust we were made and to the dust we shall return. Even so, in Christ, we live in the eternal hope of the resurrection.