Ash Wednesday has been celebrated at least since the 10th Century to mark the beginning of the season of Lent.
Though this specific ceremony isn’t described in scripture, what it represents is wholeheartedly biblical.
As you come forward and have ashes spread on your forehead you’ll walk back with an absurd looking smudge approximating a cross.
And, as we all do this, we form a strange looking community of people who seem to have left home without checking the mirror first: we have food in our teeth, a big grease stain on our shirt, and our fly down!
(Not that any of these examples come from personal experience!)
It's like we've left the house forgetting we have an image to uphold, impressions to make, a reputation to construct.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of all the things that we try to keep hidden: our frailty, our human fragility, our mortality.
The ashes are a stark reminder of who we actually are: we are mortal and we are not gods. We will not live forever and many of our dreams will die with us.
Many of us spend most of our lives trying to deny this reality, but Ash Wednesday is a time when we consciously remind ourselves of the truth: from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
But Ash Wednesday is not only about reminding ourselves about the fact that we are human. It is also about owning the fact that we are sinners.
In the ancient world, ashes placed on your head was a way of saying, I am busted. I am guilty.
So tonight, as we stand around and look at each other with these odd black smudges on our foreheads, we are saying to God and to each other, “I don’t have it all together. I’m not the person I want to be. I have tried to construct life according to my own wishes and for my own benefit. I am in short: a sinner.”
But, mustn't stop there, because this isn’t just an exercise in authenticity
Ash Wednesday is also a time of hope. The ashes are placed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross because we have a hope that goes beyond our humanity and sins. This cross is a reminder that because of Jesus our mortality and our sins aren’t the final word about us.
The ashes both acknowledge, and mock death, saying, “death, you are real, but where is your sting?”
There is a stronger reality at work in our lives - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus’ work on our behalf, God has actually won the battle over our sins and has even defeated death itself.
So as you come forward, come in acknowledgment of death, and penitence over your sin, but remember that you are marching toward Easter!
Prayer: God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth, grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by your grace alone that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.