On Ash Wednesday—the first of the 40-day season of Lent—many Christ-followers commemorate the passage to Easter with meditation and repentance. And some also mark the day by spreading ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.
Throughout Scripture, ashes are an important symbol of grief and repentance—a substance, like dust, to which our bodies return. The Israelites and their forebears were especially aware of this.
In Genesis 18:27, Abraham prefaces a question to the Lord by expressing his humility in God’s presence: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes…”
According to the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Abraham’s expression, dust and ashes, “contrasts the lowliness of mortals with the dignity of God.” It goes on to explain the cultural significance of ashes in those days as a sign of mourning.
Job uses the phrase twice, saying with great anguish in Job 30:19 (NKJV) that,
He has cast me into the mire,
And I have become like dust and ashes.
And again in Job 42:6 (NLT) as an acknowledgement of his need for forgiveness:
I take back everything I said,
and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible tells us that this act of displaying your sorrow and repentance with literal ashes is a typical practice in ancient Israel and is a sign of honoring God. The prophet Daniel, too, used ashes to show his distress and repentance, and King David writes of eating ashes in Psalm 102 to prove the depths of his lament.
But like many symbols in the Bible, ashes are also used as a sign of our ultimate redemption in Christ’s sacrifice. We wear them as a sign of our salvation, having been washed clean of our sins. This is foretold by the prophet Isaiah who presents God’s plan for both judgment and salvation, justice, and grace. In Isaiah 61:3 (NIV), he writes,
He has sent me…[to] provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
Today, many of us put on ashes as a continuation of that symbol—of repentance and lament that results in astounding joy. Christ anoints us with his Spirit, replacing our ashes with a crown of beauty because of the crown of stinging mockery that he wore on the cross.
In Christ’s sacrifice, death sees itself inverted, as does our shame, and the ashes that we are becomes a symbol pointing to the everlasting life that we are given instead.
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