“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:5-6
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent that precedes Easter. Lent—when appropriately observed—is a time of spiritual reflection to prepare one’s heart for Holy Week and Easter. There is a somberness associated with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, and rightly so. It is during this time that we are reminded of our broken relationship with God and of our need for repentance.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday serve to remind us of our mortal and fallen nature. After Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, he and Eve were punished for their disobedience by God. Sin had been brought into creation, labor pains would be intensified, and man would now have to work to till the earth for food. In Genesis 3:19, God reminds Adam that, due to his actions, he will experience something that was outside of God’s original plan for him: that he will die, and return to the dust from which he had been created.
Ashes were also a symbol in the ancient world of extreme contrition and repentance. Throughout the Old Testament, we find examples of people putting on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their mourning and to physically demonstrate the spiritual change they are undergoing. This is best evidenced in the Book of Jonah. When Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh and preached to the people of that city of their impending destruction at the hands of the God of Israel, the city repented. They fasted and put on sackcloth and ashes—from the poorest of them, up to the king. This symbolized their contrition and repentance before the God of Israel, and as such, He spared the city. Radical repentance can cause radical results.
Ash Wednesday and Lent, in general, reminds us of these two truths. First, it tells us that we are sinful people who are separated from God and as such our bodies will one day return to the dust. We require a Savior to restore our relationship with God. This is where Christ enters the equation. His death is what paid our debts to God and settled our account. He led a sinless life and atoned for us so that we can enjoy eternal life with God, and so that our bodies will be restored from the dust when He resurrects those who believe in Him. His own resurrection broke the cycle of “dust to dust” and proved that there is a resurrection to come for all of us.
This brings us to the second truth that Ash Wednesday reminds us of: that we must repent. We must see the folly of the path that we are on, and turn back to God and place our faith in Christ. We must understand the depth and the gravity of what he endured for us and be moved to follow Him instead of our own pursuits. Just as the Ninevites believed in God in Jonah’s day and repented, so too must we believe in Christ today and repent of our sins. We must submit ourselves wholly to Him and let Christ live through us. We must hate our sin; we must demonstrate extreme contrition and remorse for how we have offended God and we must repent. We must humble ourselves—don our sackcloth and ashes—before our holy God and ask His forgiveness.
Remember these truths on Ash Wednesday: we are sinners estranged from God, Christ came to restore us, and we must repent and follow Him. Examine your heart and let go of the things keeping you from giving yourself entirely to Christ. But most importantly, don’t limit this to only Ash Wednesday or to Lent. Live this way each and every day.
photo courtesy of the Episcopal Church Diocese of East Tennessee (www.dioet.org)