When you think about it, smearing ashes on our faces is kind of a strange thing to do.
For people today, ashes serve very little purpose – they are usually viewed as a kind of dirt, or as what is left after a body is cremated.
But that wasn’t the way they were viewed in the past. For centuries, ashes were an essential ingredient in the making of soap. Oddly enough, what we might see as dirty was used to make us clean!
But ashes have had a religious significance for millennia. The expression “sackcloth and ashes” was a description of the way a person in mourning displayed their humbleness, sorrow, and grief for their sins or for anything terrible that happened to them.
Job sat on a heap of dust and ashes as he grieved over what God had allowed to be done to him. [Job 2:8]
Daniel appealed to the Lord by using fasting, sackcloth and ashes to show God that the people of Israel repented and wanted to return to God’s favor. [Daniel 9:3]
And, perhaps most unexpected of all, Moses took a handful of ashes and tossed them high into the air in front of Pharaoh. As the ashes settled to the ground, all the Egyptians were afflicted with terrible boils on their skin. [Exodus 9:10]
The only references to ashes in the New Testament come from one saying of Jesus – condemning two cities that failed to repent [Luke 10:13-15] – and a sentence in the Book of Revelation, where people who have been condemned lament their punishment. [Revelation 11:3]
So, why do we put ashes on our faces today?
I’m sure it harks back to the symbolism of repenting and mourning, but I think it speaks volumes in our time and culture.
There is so much focus today on beauty and attractiveness. American women spend an average of $1,380 per year on products and treatments to be “beautiful” (this includes anti-aging products). And men spend an average of $588 per year (this includes paying for fitness equipment and gym memberships).
Just knowing this makes it even more inexplicable that we should deliberately disfigure our faces with black soot.
So why do we do it? I think the answer has three components.
The first is tradition. As I said, there is a strong biblical foundation for using ashes to make our misery visible.
Then, there is our desire to show our repentance. We don’t wear a scarlet letter, but the witness of the ashes demonstrates that we accept our sinfulness and don’t wish to hide it.
And lastly, wearing the ashes can be considered a silent profession of faith, just like wearing a cross, a star of David, or a hijab. We don’t do it to “show off.” We do it because our faith calls us to admit that we are sinners in the face of all who see us.
We wear the ashes, even though we ourselves cannot see them. But we can see the ashes on everyone else.
And isn’t that like it is with our sins? We can list all the sins of others, but we’re often blind to our own. That may be why Jesus said, “remove the log in your own eye before you try to remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye.” [Matthew 7:3-5 para.]
The ashes that we wear are a statement to those who see them – a proclamation that we take sin seriously, that we acknowledge that we are sinners, and – most importantly –
that we know we are forgiven.
Let us pray.
Have mercy on us, O Lord our God, and accept our repentance for all our sins.
Forgive us, heal us, renew us, and strengthen us to be witnesses to your love and mercy in a sin-filled world.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Priest-in-Charge at St George's Church, Mt Savage, MD since May 1, 2020.