Ashes to Ashes

Brothers and Sisters,

If you pay attention to the church calendar, then you’ll know that today is what Christians have long called Ash Wednesday—a day of prayer, fasting, and lament over our sin.

Ash Wednesday ushers in the liturgical season of Lent—a 46-day period of self-denial and reflection meant to prepare us to grasp the horrors of Christ’s passion so that we can more fully appreciate the resurrection glory of Easter.

Today, I find the imagery of ashes poignant for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

First, a word about extra-biblical tradition, ashes, fasting, and the like…

Our church does not hold an Ash Wednesday service. Others in our denomination do. Though I’ve come to appreciate tradition and the value of ritual, I’m not convinced we need this one. I am convinced, however, that this is not an issue over which Christians need to tussle.

Ash Wednesday and Lent developed centuries after the Bible was written. Thus, we’d be wrong to even hint that they bind the believer’s conscience. They do not. Still, a “solemn assembly” is not without scriptural precedent (Joel 1:14). And, as long as we don’t invest them with sacramental power, ashes are a biblical sign of lament and repentance (Job 42:6). Long-story, short: Protestants who observe Ash Wednesday aren’t entirely off the biblical reservation.

If you choose to visit an Ash Wednesday service today, then please know that there is nothing you’ll find there that you wouldn’t get on a Sunday morning. There is no sacramental grace in the ashes. There is no greater confession or plea for forgiveness in them than when we bow our heads and pray, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean…” (Ps 51:7).

What is true of Ash Wednesday is also true of Lent.

Should any of us choose to fast for a season, our lack does not in any way complete or enhance the once-for-all sacrifice Christ made for us. The choice to forgo that which would otherwise be lawful is voluntary and pedagogical; it helps us learn in a practical way what it means to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom 12:1). That’s it.

Now, back to the ashes…

As Russian artillery reduces areas of Ukraine to ash and rubble, I find what this day represents to be all the more poignant. As we lament over and repent of our sin, we must remember that the darkness in our hearts is a common feature of fallen humanity. Sadly, we are not immune from the disease that, in its most acute state, leads dictatorial thugs to murder innocent civilians.

And so we pray…

Come, Lord Jesus.

Come and heal our sin-sick hearts, for apart from your grace we are lost in the same darkness. Come and heal their hearts so that they might turn from this course. Rescue those who suffer unjustly. Judge between the nations. Beat every sword, spear, and automatic weapon into a tool for the good. Restore your kingdom in its fullness, so that neither we nor our children have to learn of war ever again.

Come, Lord Jesus.

The Grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all, Kenny