Many non-Lutherans wonder why their Lutheran friends or family members wear ashes on their forehead at the beginning of Lent. Are they showing off? Are they trying to stand out? Is it some weird secret church ritual? What does it mean? Should I get them too?
There are three reasons why Lutherans go to church to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. First, the ashes remind people of their sinfulness. Second, the ashes remind people of their mortality. Third, the ashes remind people that they have been redeemed. Let’s unpack this a bit.
Since ancient times, God’s people have used ashes as a sign of humble repentance (e.g. Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3: Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). This tradition was carried on by the early church and remains an important tradition today. When one willingly goes up to a pastor and receives ashes on his/her forehead, they are admitting that they are sinners in desperate need of salvation. They are admitting that they have sinned not only against their neighbors, but against God Himself. The ashes demonstrate that without God, all people are spiritually dead. The ashes remind the wearer of their need to repent and confess in order to be turned back to God. The ashes demonstrate our pleading that the Lord would purify us. The ashes serve as a tangible and visible sign of our failure to love God as much as He loves us.
The receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday also remind people of their mortality, which is the direct result of God’s condemnation of our sin. God said to Adam, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Ashes serve as a solemn reminder that the price of sin is death. Man cannot escape death. Often, people today feel as if they are invincible. It’s easy to feel like we’re at the top of the world, capable of doing anything that we desire. We keep ourselves busy doing “good” things, but fail to recognize that in reality we are dead men walking. People don’t like to think about death. Our culture has seemingly sterilized death. We make every attempt to avoid death. Death is uncomfortable. And, that’s why ashes are so important. They are the physical reminder that God created man from the dust of the earth and one day all men will return to the dust of the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The ashes force us to remember that we are merely mortal and that God alone is sovereign and reigns for all eternity.
Ashes also tell us the good news of the Gospel! You see, ashes aren’t just smeared randomly or haphazardly across people’s foreheads. The ashes are given in the shape of the cross. In receiving the ashes, we remember that our Lord Jesus took on the fullness of our humanity. He who was sinless became our sin. Jesus the Christ was crucified on a cross. He was crucified for you. Then Jesus conquered death itself through His resurrection. He was resurrected for you. In doing so, He has taken the ashes of our past and created in us new life, allowing us to live forever in the holy presence of God! He has redeemed His children, making us clean and new. Through the cross of Christ, the power of death has been destroyed. Through the cross there is life. The cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads proclaim the good news that sin and death have been conquered through the cross of Christ.
In many Lutheran Ash Wednesday services, the Lord’s Supper immediately follows the receiving of ashes. We, who were once dead in our sins, we who deserve to die, come to the Lord’s Table literally wearing the cross of Christ. Here, at the Lord’s table, those who have humbled themselves before the Lord, who have admitted their sin, who know they deserve death, are instead given the new life that is only found through the body and blood of our loving Lord Jesus. Here, at the Lord’s table, those marked with the cross of Christ are raised up, strengthened through God’s mercy, love, and grace, and sent forth into the world to proclaim the good news!
This year, you are encouraged to find a local Lutheran church so that you, too, can join in this special occasion in which we humbly come before the Lord, repent of our sinful ways and receive the free gift of our Lord Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the ashes Lutherans receive are traditionally made out of the palm branches used previously on Palm Sunday, a day when people rejoiced and praised Jesus only days before they turned on him and yelled “Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21; John 19:6) This serves as a powerful reminder that people are sinful, death is real, but Resurrection Day (Easter) is coming! Come, all are welcome. All are in need of salvation. Let the Lord use the ashes of your past to create in you a clean heart and new life in Him.