From my online research I have found the following information concerning the beginning of the imposition of ashes. “The name ‘Day of Ashes’ comes from “Dies Cinerum” in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).” “In the Old Testament ashes were found to have used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom. Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.”
We have three texts for this evening, each one speaking about the fact that we are creatures, created by God and although we were fashioned, formed from the dust of the ground and given life by God Himself, He created us to love us. Yet, we realize that at the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s temporal judgement on us has been physical death and apart from Him, eternal spiritual death.
In our first text we read, “Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). The context of this reading is that Abraham is pleading to God against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In his humble pleading with God Abraham confesses that he believes that he is a human being and really has no right to bargain with God.
As Abraham recognizes his position before God as “dust and ashes,” we are reminded that this is our standing before God as well. We are but dust and ashes and have no standing before our Creator God, yet we too approach Him as our Father in heaven, just as children approach their earthly fathers.
In our second text we read as Job speaks concerning his circumstances, “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). The context of this reading is that Job, in speaking with his friends, expounds on what he believes is his situation. Job does not understand why all these “bad” things are happening to him, but he is sure of this, that it is a testing from God and that certainly he must accept what God gives because of his low estate.
As Job recognizes his standing before God he believes that in God’s eyes he is dust and ashes, so too we are reminded that this is also our standing before God, that we too are but dust and ashes and we would do well to accept and even rejoicing in any testing the Lord may have in store for us.
In our third reading Job again speaks saying, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The context of this reading is that Job expounds on what he believes he needs to do before God. Job realizes his need to despise himself and to repent in dust and ashes. Keep this image of repentance in dust and ashes in mind if you will.
Job understands that sin requires repentance and repentance encompasses admitting one’s nature, that is that we are creatures, created from dust and ash. Time and again in the Word of God we read of someone covering themselves in dust and ashes in their time of sorrow and repentance. And so this dust and ash covering have become synonymous with contrition and sorrow over one’s sins.
So, what does this mean? As we read through the Word of God we realize that our status, our stature, our standing before God, is that we were created from the dust of the ground. God formed us from the dust of the ground and breathed in the man’s nostrils and he became a living being. We are descendants of Adam who was created from the dust of the ground and so indeed our DNA is that we are dirt.
Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, because their sin and its punishment and curse have been passed down to us through our DNA, our status before God is that we are sinners. We are conceived and born in sin, that which we call original sin. Because we are conceived and born in sin we have no free will, because our free will was lost in the original sin and curse, so our will, being tainted by sin and cursed is to reject everything that is good and from God. Thus, every inclination of our hearts is evil all the time. We have no right standing before God and we have no right to stand before God.
Ashes symbolize our recognition of our sinfulness and our desire to repent. Ashes symbolize our recognition that we are creatures, that our DNA is dirt and ashes, that God is our Creator and certainly that He created us for the purpose of loving us. And He does love us and He shows His love for us in the gift and the life of His Son. Now, I could stand here all night and tell you what a lousy sinner you are and how in and of yourself you have no hope of eternal life. I could run through the Ten Commandments and remind you of our sins of commission, doing the things you should not be doing and I could remind you of your sins of omission, that is I could remind you of that you not doing the things you should be doing. Unfortunately no matter how much law I might preach it will not lead you to confess your sins. The law leads, either to despair because you might come to believe there is no hope, or it will lead you to works righteousness, thinking that you can become good enough for God.
Thanks we be God that we are not left with just the Law, but we also have the Gospel. We have the good news of Jesus. It is this news that God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to live for us, to take our sins upon Himself, that He suffered for us and died for us. It is this good news that actually leads us to repent of our sins. It is because we know that God loves us and that He has already taken care of our sins that we desire to and that we do confess our sins and rejoice in His forgiveness.
Which bring us to God’s response which is to forgive our sins. The very reason Jesus was born was to give His life for ours. He lived for us, He suffered for us. He died for us, He rose for us, because of His great love for us. Because of what He has done for us we cannot help bur repent and be given His forgiveness.
Because ashes are a sign of repentance so we take this day and put ashes on our forehead, usually in somewhat of the form of a cross. As the ashes are put on us we are reminded of our dire situation, that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return. We wear our ashes as a symbol of our repentance and a reminder of our forgiveness. We wear our ashes as a witness to the world, our humble witness of what a great God we have. We wear our ashes in the sign of the cross to remind us that our sins are forgiven and thus to rejoice and say, to God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.