Ash Wednesday

March 9, 2011
by Iris Ford

Philippians 3:7-8 – Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (NIV)

This is Ash Wednesday, a day for sackcloth and ashes. Philippians speaks to me loud and clear — everything in my life feels like ashes — I look on my life as garbage. Sin is the cause of our unsuitable behaviour, which belittles all we are intended to be.

Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, on which ashes are applied to the foreheads of Christians to signify an inner repentance. But what is the history and the meaning of this Christian holy day? Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God. Christians are free either to observe or not to observe it. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, is meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behaviour. God makes this clear in this passage:

Isaiah 58:5-7 – Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (NIV)

Ash Wednesday probably dates from at least the 8th century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of an Anglo-Saxon abbot who lived from 955-1020. The pouring of ashes on one's body and dressing in sackcloth are to be outer manifestations of inner repentance or mourning. In the New Testament, Jesus alludes to the practice:

Matthew 11:21 – Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (NIV)

In the context of Ash Wednesday, the ashes remind each of us of our sin and humanity. Seeing ourselves truly, we need to repent and get right with God — this is what the cross reminds us of. There in Jesus' sacrifice, each of us receives forgiveness.

But for me, ashes on my head does not go far enough in dealing with my life, for after all, aren't we all supposed to count it as garbage, as ashes, in order to serve Christ, free of all trappings of pride and self-confidence? It was certainly this way for Paul writing to the Philippians.

Some of the problems with our society today are our worship of material things and our sense of accomplishment and pride in what we have been able to accomplish.

Jesus showed us the truth of our inner emotional state and our outer physical state when He died on the cross stripped of everything but nails.

Prayer: O Lord, forgive us for worshipping the things of earth, those things around us and in us that we can so easily take pride in. We ask your Spirit to strip us of all false pride so that we can better serve You and better share Your love from a full and repentant heart. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

About the author:

Iris Ford
Parksville, British Columbia, Canada

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