Why use ashes on Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is this week and it’s the beginning of the season of Lent, one of my favorite times of the year. I’m not kidding; I really like the Lenten season. I used to make the usual ignorant jokes about seeing people with dark smudges on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday but that quickly changed into deep respect when I became more familiar with the Church calendar year in college.

Most evangelical Christians see ashes and think it’s some sort of archaic tradition that usually gets a half-hearted “okay, cool” response from a lot of us. Last year I shared about the potential of Ash Wednesday for evangelicals. But why do we use ashes on Ash Wednesday? Why take the time to smear our foreheads with ashes?

The ashes are symbols of our sins, those weights and struggles that we’ve carried with us. The ashes come from the palm branches used during Palm Sunday the previous year. The palms have been preserved, dried, and stored throughout the year and burned into ashes. The ashes are sometimes mixed with a small amount of oil or water to help them stick together.

As the ashes are applied to the observer’s head, they hear God’s words quoted to Adam in the Garden of Eden: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) It’s a reminder of the cyclical trajectory of our physical existence, from nothing to something back to nothing again. Without Christ’s Resurrection, that’s where our eternities would stay.

There’s a weight, a significance to the burning of the palm branches. The memory of celebrating Christ’s resurrection last year has become a slippery memory since then and it’s easy to forget the impact of that message. Our memories of it have become worn out and dried up because we’ve lost some of that freshness. Maybe our memories of celebrating Christ’s victory have even become fragile, depending on whether this past year shook the core of our faith.

You don’t have to be “liturgical” or “orthodox” to take part in Ash Wednesday. Find a local church that’s hosting an Ash Wednesday service and set time aside to observe. Take the time to feel the fracture of sin on your life. I can guarantee that you won’t see Ash Wednesday the same way ever again.

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