Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)
Recently Ash Wednesday was observed by many Roman Catholic and Protestant parishioners marking the beginning of the 46-day Lenten Season that ends on Easter Sunday. As Baptists, we acknowledge the practice, that is, we are aware that it’s going on, but we do not actively participate in any of the practices that accompany the season – “For by grace are ye saved … not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So it may strike us a bit odd that faithful Catholics and Protestants will subject themselves to having their foreheads smeared with black ashes in the form of a cross. It seems a little humiliating because those who are uninformed, like me, tend to either stare at the devotee or they will look away to keep from staring. Some will question, but never “ask” as to the meaning of the practice. Not me – I am curious, and I want to know, so I ask.
Many of the Catholics that I have asked do not know why they put on the ashes. They know that it is a tradition of the Church, and that’s what every good Catholic does on Ash Wednesday; but other than that, they can attribute no significance to it. Some say that the practice is to remind them that we are but dust and to dust we must return. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” is a phrase often repeated at funeral services, but is not a phrase found in the Bible. However, the idea that we are but dust and to dust we must return is a biblical concept. At the fall, man lost his physical ability to live forever – “for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) – when God gave the sentence: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). My guess is that any nominal Christian is aware of that fact, without the need of a visual reminder. Besides, what does that have to do with Lent or Easter? The ashes are not permanent; they wear off in a day or two while Easter is still 44 days away. If one needs the ashes as a reminder of one's mortality, one might forget soon after the ashes are gone. So, there must be more to it than that.
I have learned through the years that the best place to get answers on matters of the faith is to “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life” (John 5:39), rather than to seek answers in the opinions of people. The first mention of “ashes” in Scripture is found in Genesis 18 where the LORD, with two other “men,” visits Abraham. After Abraham has fed them, and the men prepare to depart, the LORD promises Abraham a son and reveals to him His plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham intercedes for the cities, knowing that his nephew Lot is living there. Recognizing that he is speaking with the LORD, YAWEH, he assumes his proper place and says, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). He recognizes that he is standing before his Creator Who made all of mankind from the dust of the earth. Job also, as he contemplates the cause for his suffering says, “[The LORD] hath cast me into the mire, and I am become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). So the reference to “dust and ashes” here shows proper humility before the Creator to whom we owe our very being, and whom we often take for granted.
The first reference where someone applied ashes on their head is found in 2 Samuel 13 where Tamar, King David’s daughter, is raped by her step brother, Amnon. “And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her, and laid her hand on her head, and went on crying” (2 Samuel 13:19). In this case, the ashes represent deep mourning. The book of Esther has another example of this when Mordecai discovers a plot to exterminate the Jews. “When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry … And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:1, 3). Job in his suffering exhibited the same kind of behavior. After losing all of his family and property, he was afflicted with painful boils all over his body, “And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes.” So covering one’s head with ashes was a sign of deep sorrow and mourning.
Sackcloth and ashes also symbolizes genuine repentance of sin. When Daniel concluded that the end of Judah’s captivity in Babylon was at hand, he says, “And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). He then proceeded to confess his sin and the sin of his people and plead God’s forgiveness. Job too, after receiving his “non-answer” from God (Job 38-41), proclaims: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). The prophet Jonah reluctantly went to preach to the city of Nineveh, and much to Jonah’s dismay, the people all repented, including the king. “For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him[self] with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6). Jesus alludes to the practice of showing repentance with sackcloth and ashes. “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:20-21; see also Luke 10:13) .
There are three things we learn from Scripture in regard to ashes, whether combined with renting of clothing, putting on of sackcloth, or combining with dust. First of all, it shows humility before God. Secondly, it demonstrates deep sorrow and mourning. Thirdly, it expresses repentance for sin. So, if one wants to practice the application of ashes to the forehead on Ash Wednesday, these are the things one must keep in mind, and do it as an act of true contrition and worship rather than a mindless ritual or habit.
Having concluded my personal study on the subject I wondered if I might find something on the internet about it; so I Googled “Meaning of Ash Wednesday.” Here is what I found on Wikipedia:
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3–6. Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5–6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26). The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39). [Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ash_Wednesday]
Well, it seems my guess was right!