Today is Ash Wednesday. In many churches throughout the world (including, and interestingly enough, in my Baptist church – we’re definitely not your typical Baptists), the observance of this day means receiving an Ashen Cross on the forehead. The ash – which comes from last year’s Palm Sunday branches – is given to congregants as a way of entering into the 40 day period of Lent.
There have been different “takes” on this symbolic gesture. And I think that some “take” this the wrong way.
There are some churches where Ash Wednesday is taught as a religious obligation. They teach that observing this holiday and the receiving of the Ashen Cross keeps them in good standing with God and the church. I don’t believe this is the right “take.” This approach goes against the biblical concept that Christ and His saving work on the Cross – alone – is what allows us to stand before God in righteousness.
And then there are those who are quick to judge that all Christians who observe Ash Wednesday and take the Ashen Cross must be doing it for those reasons stated above – to fulfill a religious obligation and follow a superstitious rite. This is simply not true. There’s a whole lot more to why many Christians set apart this day as special.
There is a rich symbolism in this practice that needs some good reflection. And that’s what brings deep meaning to this season. Here are some of these thoughts:
“Ash” is a symbol of our mortality and limitation as human beings. As Abraham declared in Gen 18:27, “I am … but dust and ashes.” Without the Spirit of God’s breath, all we are is the dust of this finite world. This realization is a gift as we are reminded of our dependency on God to sustain our lives as well as that we are frail and limited. True examination of this serves to protect us from the folly of arrogance or self-importance, and that our life comes from God alone.
“Ash” is also a symbol of mourning. Job, when he lost everything, mourned in a heap of ashes. Ashes and sackcloth were the Biblical “clothes” of a mourner. We mourn because live in a broken world. Unfortunately, we cause and perpetuate some of this brokenness (what the Bible calls “sin”) and that is reason to mourn. We are also victims of this brokenness; some terribly so. What else can we genuinely do but cry out to God in our mourning? Anything less reveals a lack of awareness of gravity of our plight without God.
The “Cross” represents the real life instrument that Jesus bore to reverse the effects of the curse and our brokenness. Christ identified himself with the limitations of the human race by taking on our “dust and ash” nature and used our greatest vulnerability – death – to conquer the cosmic and practical effects of sin, darkness, and death itself.
The “Cross” is also a symbol of us (as His followers) proactively dying to ourselves, our ways, our agendas. The “Cross” represents surrender – as Jesus Christ totally surrendered himself to God’s plan. In taking up my cross, I follow Jesus in that pattern of surrendering my limited, mortal, helpless, and sin-riddled self to God.
So the “Ashen Cross” represents my only hope to life. Only Christ can take the worthless ash of who I am and raise me to limitless life. Oddly, it comes as I die to myself and live for Him. As Paul writes, “I want to know Christ … becoming like him in death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11).
So I choose to take the Ashen Cross today, not as an obligatory ritual or superstitious rite, but as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the work and way of Jesus Christ. It’s not for everybody – we all have our ways of declaring our oneness with the One True Lord and Savior. But I find to be very meaningful to me as I pursue Christ in Whole Life Worship.
What are some ways you declare your solidarity with the work and ways of Christ?
What are some of your reflections on the Biblical meaning of “ash” and “cross”?