Faith Matters

Understanding the reason for ashes

Column by Dan Hettinger

A professional woman, dressed for work in a black dress, hose and heels misjudged the incline of the sidewalk and took an all-the-way-down fall.
As I was walking toward my Jeep, just outside the tech center coffee shop, I heard the scream. Quickly, people who were nearby came to her aid.
Nobody likes to fall. It hurts the pride as much as it hurts the body. Embarrassment and physical pain converge for an experience that sets the day off to a bad start.
This fall was an accident caused by an innocent misstep. She might have been in a hurry or distracted, but it was not from a character flaw. Thankfully, her injuries were minor and, after she got to her feet, she was on her way.
But according to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, their fall affects the human condition. The relationship with God was broken, work became much more difficult, birth was painful and death entered the picture. Ever since that fall we've been trying get back up, and like the woman on the sidewalk we need help.
Many people of faith observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, a solemn season of recognition of the fallen condition and preparation for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The season begins on Ash Wednesday, the day many are marked with black ashes on their foreheads.
In the following three paragraphs, author Mark Hart on his blog gives a Biblical and traditional explanation for the ashes of Ash Wednesday:
“Over forty passages in the Bible associate ashes with mourning and grief. In Old Testament times people used ashes as a sign of repentance. They would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink. They did this as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance. Check out , for an example.
“Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time when we stop and assess how we're doing in our walk with God. Lent helps us identify spiritual areas in which we can grow and sinful areas that we need to avoid. To repent, put simply, means to turn from sin and turn God. We use ashes as an outward expression of our need to begin again.
“Ashes are a sign of physical death, as in `ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' We began as dust (a joyless and lifeless existence), and our bodies will return to dust until we are raised up by Christ. By receiving ashes and keeping them on, we publicly proclaim our intent to die to our worldly desires and live even more in Christ's image, which we focus on during the season of `rebirth' that is Lent (a Latin term for `Spring').”
It is hard to deny the consequences of Adam's and Eve's fall from grace but many still don't like to admit we have a condition that needs to change or the possibility of sin that requires forgiveness and repentance.
As I see it, while I don't like to fall and am embarrassed and pained by physical and spiritual falls, admitting I am down gives me the opportunity to get up. There is a healthier assessment of my need with a remedy to my condition.
The need for forgiveness is as great as the need for love in each of us, but while it is easy to say, “nobody is perfect” it is hard to admit that I have done wrong and need to experience forgiveness. Those who wear ashes, and many who don't, have confessed their need for forgiveness and recognize the fallen condition of our world, seek the work of a Savior and desire to change their patterns of behavior.
It is painful to fall but it is not necessary to stay down if there is help to get up. The season of Lent, leading to Good Friday and Easter six weeks away, begins with an observance that seems odd to some, the wearing of black ashes on the forehead, but for many it is the first step to getting up by recognizing we have fallen.