If you’re unfamiliar with it, Ash Wednesday seems an odd tradition. Ashes of burned crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are rubbed on the forehead in the shape of a cross.
(Photo: By Oxh973, Jennifer Balaska. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
So what’s the point of wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday? The cinder residue is reminiscent of the biblical act of repenting “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). (Speaking of ashes, the holiday also represents “National No Smoking Day” in Ireland.)
Many Christians have no connection with Ash Wednesday’s tradition.
But we all have need of what it represents. Every day.
Dirty Foreheads and Hearts
Ash Wednesday represents our need to repent. Whether or not you have a dirty forehead, you do have a heart that needs cleaning.
So do I. But what does repentance look like beyond the ashes?
All four Gospels indicate John the Baptist specifically fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of a voice crying in the wilderness—a voice that prepared the way for the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3).
The wilderness of Judea today sits virtually unchanged since the time of John. Deep valleys, high hills, and rough, rocky paths set apart this barren wasteland where John preached the words, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (Luke 3:4).
- In ancient times, when a king would visit a foreign land, he would send workers ahead to smooth a road so that the he could come unhindered.
- In preparing the pathway for the King of kings, John pointed to the rough land around him and compared it to the hard hearts he saw.
- John used the physical geography in his message to communicate the need for spiritual change:
Every ravine will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be brought low; the crooked will become straight, and the rough roads smooth (Luke 3:5).
The simple command that characterized John’s message, “repent,” literally means a change of mind that should produce a change of action.
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down . . . on our Faces
What geographic illustration would John use to describe our hearts today?
- Do we seem like rocky crags or soft pathways?
- Do we demonstrate a barren wilderness or a peaceful pool?
- What in our lives would Christ have to walk around if He came to us right now?
Back to the ashes. We always have to return to this simple truth:
Jesus refused to commend any religious activity that was not an expression of character. (Tweet that.)
This is why the Bible remains so adamant about the renewal of the mind (Ps. 119:9-11, Prov. 23:7; Rom. 12:1-3; Col. 3:1-10). That’s where repentance begins.
I think it’s appropriate that the ashes are applied to the forehead on Ash Wednesday.
Because only with a renewed mind every day comes a new life.