When I was growing up, I knew that Ash Wednesday was a real thing … sort of. I remember my pastor mentioning it during church … vaguely. I’m pretty sure it was one of those services that was held in the middle of the day, and since I was in school, I didn’t worry about it much. I don’t remember anyone ever explaining much about Ash Wednesday to me. And as far as I was concerned, putting ashes on your forehead was strictly a “Catholic thing.” I didn’t know any Protestants who did that.
Then I went to the Ash Wednesday service at the church I attended in college. It was a mainline Presbyterian church in Eau Claire, WI, and I’d made a really wonderful connection with the pastor there – a connection I maintain and cherish to this day. Pastor Eric was the first Protestant I’d ever known who put an emphasis and a weight on observing Ash Wednesday, and he was certainly the first Protestant I’d ever known to smear ashes on my forehead and repeat those sobering and eternal words derived from Scripture – from God’s words to Adam and Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It still gives me goosebumps.
Ashes have long been a symbol of grieving and repentance. Job declares to God, “Therefore, I relent and find comfort in dust and ashes.” Likewise, Daniel speaks of his own repentance, saying, “I then turned my face to my Lord God, asking for an answer with prayer and pleading, and with fasting, mourning clothes, and ashes.” Many of the prophets, including Jeremiah, call upon the people of Israel to repent in sackcloth and ashes, and the Ninevites, after finally hearing Jonah’s call to turn from their wicked ways and return to God, do indeed repent in exactly this manner: “When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes.” Even Jesus speaks of this practice: “If the miracles done among you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have changed their hearts and lives long ago. They would have sat around in funeral clothes and ashes.”
And there is special significance in the ashes we use. They come from the palm branches that we used during last year’s Palm Sunday service. There is a sacred poetry in this. In that small, ceramic bowl, we hold both the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday and the solemnity and contrition of Ash Wednesday just as in our own lives, we are constantly holding both joys and sorrows, celebration and pains, successes and failures. These are all the elements that make up our lives – all the different aspects of who we are … body, mind, and soul. When we come to God in repentance, we come bringing out whole selves – the smooth parts and the rough edges, the parts we’re proud of and the parts we try to hide. All the pretty, all the ugly, and everything in between.
That is what’s mixed up in that little, ceramic bowl.
That is what we bear upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
That is why we come before God to worship and pray, to repent … and to be transformed.
All evening long I wore the ash,
that holy ash,
and when others saw the smudge,
I wondered if they were inclined
to wipe it clean
or to lean closer
in the hope of hearing
some soft Hosanna!
or heart …
~from “Ashes” by Ann Weems~
 Genesis 3:19.
 Job 42:6.
 Daniel 9:3.
 Jeremiah 6:26.
 Jonah 3:6.
 Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13.