What do the ashes mean?  And why bother with Lent?

by Harry K. Zeiders

Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent which lasts 46 days leading up to the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.  In biblical times, ashes — the result of humans burning something — were used as a cultural sign of:

  • distress in the wake of traumatic stress — “Tamar put ashes on her head” after she was raped (2 Samuel 13.19); and Mordecai and other Jews were in “sackcloth and ashes” after hearing of Haman’s plot (Esther 4.1 & 3)
  • lament when faced with tragic loss — Job “sat in the ashes” after losing nearly everything (Job 2.8)
  • remorse before God — Daniel sought Yahweh “by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9.3); and Nineveh’s king “sat in ashes” to avert God’s impending doom (Jonah 3.6)

Ashes sometimes rhetorically represented something insignificant, as in one prophetic simile where “frost like ashes” can be scattered effortlessly (Psalm 147.16).  Dust — the result of God’s creating inert (non-organic) matter, such as dirt and sand — likewise, embodied insignificance.  Yahweh formed Adam “of dust from the ground” (Genesis 2.7), and declared that “to dust you shall return” after Adam had sinned (Genesis 3.19).  Dust bespeaks the humility and mortality of humans.  Abraham humbly identified himself as “I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18.27).

Christian tradition pairs the sense of insignificance and remorse for sin in its use of ashes to start the 40 days of Lent (not counting the 6 Sundays during the season).  Jesus fasted from food for 40 days and faced Satan’s temptations to sin (Matthew 4.1–11; Mark 1.12–13; Luke 4.1–13), ensuring that he was free of any self-reliance and self-importance, and was fully aligned with God the Father and the Holy Spirit before he commenced his life’s work.  The point of Jesus’ fast was not to fast.  The point of Jesus’ fast was to prepare him for his mission.

Likewise, the point of Ash Wednesday and Lent ultimately is not humility and repentance.  Rather, the point of Lent is to prepare us to walk with Christ in our life.  Lent, developed in the early 300s, was originally designed to train new converts before their baptism on the eve of Easter.  Today Lent is as an annual opportunity for all of us to fast from anything that hinders or hurts our relationship with the Triune God, and to turn towards God with greater zeal.

By observing Lent, we will be prepared not only to better appreciate all that Jesus did for us through his execution on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but also to better walk with him throughout the rest of this year.


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