In my early twenties, I remember seeing an elegantly dressed woman with ashes on her forehead. Since I
didn't grow up in a liturgical church, I was unaware of the observance of Ash Wednesday and almost said,
"Hey, you've got something on your face!" Thankfully, I didn't. I soon found out why she had that smudge on her forehead.
As I grew in my knowledge of Scripture, I discovered that placing ashes on one's head symbolized repentance and was an ancient Old Testament practice. But why use ashes? The ashes* were the residue from burnt offerings, a reminder of death—substitutionary death—for one's sin, paid for by the shedding of blood from an innocent animal.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, which are considered "mini-Easters." Lent is a time of introspection, to consider anew our need of a Savior and Jesus' call to repent and turn to him. Many people spend the forty days denying self—fasting—from something they enjoy doing. By this, Christians are reminded of what Jesus did: he denied himself, and then died on the cross—the innocent Lamb of God—to pay the penalty for our sins.
Jesus knows we are incapable of saving ourselves, which is why he came to earth—"the Word became flesh and lived among us . . . but to all who receive him, to those who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God" John 1:12-14.
Jesus sacrificed his life for ours—he is our substitute death! The ashes of our repentance can be exchanged for the beauty of pardon and new life in his resurrection; oh the joy of Easter!
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me . . . to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair . . ." Isaiah 61:1-3.
Copyright 2011 - S.A. Keith
*Today, the ashes used to mark foreheads are usually from burnt palm branches from the Palm Sunday of the previous year.
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