The Ashes of Ash Wednesday

Lent will soon be here, a season of repentance and fasting.  So it is proper that we take to heart our Lord’s words.  He says, “When you fast, don’t put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites.  They disfigure their faces, so their fasting is obvious to others.  I assure you: They have their reward!” (Matthew 6:16).

At first blush, it seems that Jesus is even speaking against our use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Don’t the ashes give us a gloomy face?  But that’s not the point.  For Jesus is talking about fasting and looking miserable, so others will admire you for fasting.

But for us Lutherans who have forgotten how to fast, is fasting something spiritually harmful?  Of course not!  Not only is fasting not something spiritually harmful, but it can even be spiritually worthwhile.  That’s why Jesus simply assumes His disciples will fast.  Did you notice that Jesus didn’t say “if” but “when”?

In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus says “when” you fast, “when” you pray, and “when” you give.  So, Jesus isn’t against fasting, but against someone making a show of something for spiritual “Brownie points.”  That’s what Jesus is railing against.

And have you ever noticed how closely fasting, prayer, and giving are connected?  Jesus even connects them in Matthew chapter 6.  It goes like this.  When you fast, you free up time that you don’t have to spend on fixing or eating food.  That’s extra time you can use to pray for your congregation, other Christians, or neighbor.  The extra money you don’t spend on food, you can use to give to your congregation, other Christians, or neighbor.

But again, what about making yourself look gloomy, so others will know you are fasting?  The ashes of Ash Wednesday have nothing to do with that.  The ashes have another genesis–Genesis chapter 3, to be exact.

Do you recall the Genesis account of our first parents falling into sin?  After that had happened, God spoke to the serpent: “You will crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14).  Then God turned to Adam and said, “For you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  Adam and Eve then looked in horror at the serpent as he licked his chops and they began to run in fear.

And we’ve been running from death every since.  But it’s a futile race.  For the old serpent doesn’t need to chase after us.  He knows that we inherited from Adam the venom that will finally bring us down–sin itself.  For that is what sin is: It is death in hiding.  And death is the effect of sin made visible.  So, the ashes on your forehead announce, not that you are fasting, not that you are trying to earn spiritual “Brownie points,” but that you are a dead man walking.

A dead man walking–but that’s not the whole story!  For the ashes are also placed on your forehead in the shape of a cross.  That reminds us that–even though dying is reality from which none of us can escape–a deeper reality even exists!  Jesus became our dying dust, although no curse of sin coursed in His veins.  He took our dust through death, burial, and then on to a glorious resurrection and a life that never ends.  He is risen from the dead, and His glorified dust has become the source of our eternal salvation.

Yes, you are dying.  So am I.  It’s earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.  All of us will walk the way of death, unless our Lord returns before then.  But through faith in Him, we can face death down, even into the grave.  For Jesus, our Lord, shared our dusty nature to make us receivers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  He became a child of man to lift us to be a child of God, destined for heavenly glory in Him.

Yes, you will go down to the dust.  But with Christ, and in Him, you will go through it and then be raised from the dust–glorified to live with Him forevermore.  That’s why we use ashes on Ash Wednesday.  Amen.