March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday
Read: James 4:7-10
Focus: vs. 10
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
Today is Ash Wednesday and many of us will commemorate the beginning of the Season of Lent by receiving ashes, in the sign of a cross, on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is a custom that traces back to the Catholic Church in about the 10th century and has deep roots in the Bible. Every year the Season of Lent gives us 40 days (not including Sundays) to prepare our hearts for the events of Holy Week (the death of Christ on the Cross) that conclude with Easter (Christ’s resurrection from the grave).
Ash Wednesday is best known by mark of the Cross placed on the foreheads of the faithful. This custom is a fascinating one filled with symbolism. Ashes are typically made from the palm leaves used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. This is to remind us of how Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem ends with his death on the Cross. We mourn his death as we celebrate his resurrection on Easter morning and we are mindful of how it was our sin that made his death necessary. His crucifixion was a sacrifice for us.
Ashes are also a mournful reminder our own mortality. In Genesis 3:19 God has pronounced the consequences for the sin of Adam and Eve when he says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” At graveside funeral services the pastor is often heard to say “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” as a reminder to all of our mortality. This life does not go on forever and, thus, we must consider and prepare for what comes after.
With our mortality in mind, ashes are also a sign of repentance and humility as well. Our verse for today, from James 4:10, reminds us to come to the Lord in humility recognizing that it is He who can lift us up. This humble stature is important throughout the Bible and we often see the practice of a mark on the forehead as a sign of contrition and faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel 9:4 is a case in point. Starting just prior to the verse it says, “Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” This is verse is in reference to judgment upon Israel but the concept appears throughout the Bible. In Exodus 12:21-28 we see the Hebrews preparing for the passing over of the Angel of Death that comes to take the first born of all the households that are not marked by the blood of a lamb. This initiates the Jewish custom of Passover and offers much context for the Christian practice of Communion and the many references to Jesus as a lamb sacrificed for our sins and his blood that defeats death and sin on our behalf. Interestingly enough, the original Hebrew text from Ezekiel 9:4 specifically mentions the mark as the Hebrew letter “tav.” This letter resembles a cross and is similar to the Greek letter “chi,” the first letter in the name “christos” or Christ. This connection hasn’t evaded the Church over the years and we see this mark come back in the book of Revelation, once again to separate the righteous from the unrighteous in order to spare the righteous from the wrath of God.
So let’s put this all together. Ash Wednesday is a day for contrition and humility. Ashes represent a plea to God for mercy, compassion, pardon and forgiveness. They are a public admission of guilt, an expression of sorrow for our sins, a reminder of our impending death (a reminder of our mortality) and a pledge to reform. The mark we receive on our foreheads is symbolic of our desire to be numbered among God’s faithful followers. It is a reminder of our imperfection but shows a tenderness to the ways of the Lord and a heart-sickness as we see the sins the world around us as well as our own.
So remember today that from dust you came and to dust you will return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You will not live forever and your sinfulness gives you no standing with God without the precious blood of Jesus. This is a season of contrition. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.