Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which many Christians observe with fasting, repentance, worship, and prayer in preparation for Easter. As Jesus spent forty days of testing and temptation in the wilderness before he began his public ministry, so the Lenten season spans forty self-reflective days.
It is a season of remembrance. “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” These are the words that are uttered in congregations worldwide, as they have for nearly 1500 years. The congregants’ foreheads are darkened with ashes, reminding each one of their frail humanness, and also of their Creator, for the sign signifies God’s words in Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Though there is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Scriptures, there are many occasions of repentance and mourning linked not only with sackcloth, but also with ashes. The first mention of ashes occurs in Genesis 18 when Abraham pleads to God on behalf of his family and the people of Sodom: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?” Abraham recognizes who he is—a frail and sinful creature—but boldly appeals to his Creator’s mercy.
We read of ashes associated with priestly practices in Leviticus and Numbers, but strikingly, the first instance of someone putting ashes on their forehead is found in the tragic story of Tamar’s rape by her half-brother. “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went” (2 Samuel 13:19). Her own brother tries to persuade her to keep quiet and to minimize the enormity of her loss, saying, “Don’t take this thing to heart” (v. 20). Surely, being the children of King David, something could be arranged, for David had the power and resources to keep this quiet.
Yet Tamar publicly mourns her anguish and the consequences of another’s sin, testifying to its horror in the sight of God. In doing so she also bears an enormous cost by marking herself as a defiled woman in that culture.
Similarly, the ashes upon Christian foreheads are in the form of a cross, reminding each one of our own death’s and of the death on the Cross. As the catechisms state, “In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross.”
Thus the ash is a symbol that testifies to all not only who Christians are—sinners in the sight of God—but also whose they are. For as David remembers in Psalm 103:13-14: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
Christians enter this Lenten season in repentance and reflection. Our lives are also marked with this great promise and hope: We belong to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us his own.
Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia