Why Ashes?

February 17, 2010

The use of ash has a long history in the Bible and in church tradition.

It symbolises human frailty and the shortness of human life. Abraham describes himself as ‘but dust and ashes’. It is a sign of mourning – by the time of Esther sackcloth and ashes were used to for a dramatic show of sadness. The writer of Lamentations uses it as a sign of judgement: the guilty person cowers in ashes. And in the book of Jonah it is a sign of repentance: the king of Ninevah covers himself with ashes to try to avoid God’s judgement on his city.

In church use, as well as signifying repentance, ash came to symbolise purification. It was used, together with light and water and oil, in exorcisms and the blessing of churches.

All of this symbolism is contained in our use of ash at the beginning of Lent. The ash is made from last year’s palm crosses. So it speaks of human frailty and weakness. The Jerusalem crowd waved palm branches one moment and shouted for crucifixion the next: we who re-affirmed our faith in Christ last Easter are reminded by the ashes of those palms we waved on Palm Sunday how fickle and weak our commitment to Christ can be.

In Lent we prepare to mark Christ’s passion and death in Holy Week; the cross of ash reminds us that his  passion was God’s judgement on evil; but it also marks our sorrow and repentance for the part we play in the evil of the world.

But receiving the cross of ash must not be just an empty gesture. The prophets Joel and Isaiah voice God’s rejection of ritual and ceremonies, unless it is accompanied by a true change of heart. In the reading we heard from Matthew, Jesus condemns penitence that is just  outward show.

Ash speaks to us of death and decay and reminds us how barren our lives would be if we were just dust and ashes – without God’s Spirit to give us life. But ash also speaks to us of the possibility of new life. In John’s Gospel, the metaphor of the vine is used for life rooted in God – unfruitful branches are pruned, thrown into the fire and burnt. But the gardeners among you know that ash can be used as a fertiliser. From the ashes of the old, new life can come.

Ritual is no good on its own. Nothing magical will happen after the application of ash. But it is a reminder of the need to turn away from our previous life, express penitence for our former failures  and start a new on a life centred on God and centred on other people, struggling for peace and justice. The ritual provides an opportunity for confession, absolution and rededication. The ash speaks of purification, and a new beginning.

The ash is applied in the form of a cross. It is a reminder of the cross of baptism, the sign of new and eternal life. No-one ever sees the cross of baptism; and you may rub the ash cross off your forehead, or your hands at the end of the service, so no-one else sees it.

That’s fine! Jesus warned us against making a show of our faith.

But as Christians we always carry the cross with us. In the church’s year, we are never allowed to forget it. But neither are we allowed to forget the forgiveness and hope it brings. In Lent, the cross is in front of our eyes, but each Sunday reminds us of the empty tomb. At Easter, we celebrate the empty tomb – but our risen Lord carries the marks  of the cross on him, as do all of us who follow him this Lent as his disciples.


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