“If you plan to build a tall house of virtues, you must first lay deep foundations of humility.”

 – St. Augustine

This Wednesday, February 14th, is a very special holiday.  Yes, this date is familiar to most as Valentine’s Day, the day of romantic love. However, this year, February 14th will be even more special because it is the holy day of Ash Wednesday. Most people from the liturgical church background are fairly familiar with Ash Wednesday and what it represents. Yet, others may have heard of this day or even seen people with the cross of ashes on their forehead but don’t fully understand its significance. Now, before I lose most of my non-liturgical readership I would like to briefly explain the history, importance and also the connection that Ash Wednesday has to the beliefs of all Christians, not just those of the liturgical church. This special day is more than a legalistic and religious holiday as a lot of modern Christians believe, it is a day in which the people of God may bring their focus back to Him.

Ash Wednesday is the first day and the beginning of Lent; a 40 day (46 day if you include Sundays) time of fasting, repentance and the recognition of our own mortality. The name Ash Wednesday comes from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead or head of participants, typically in the shape of a cross. This act is commonly accompanied by the phrase “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The first phrase is taken from Genesis 3:19 which states:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

And the second phrase is taken from Acts 3:19-20 which states:

“Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out,  so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus.”

The origin of Ash Wednesday (as with most religious holidays) has faced some dissension. There are those, both, in the religious community and outside of it, that claim that the practices of Ash Wednesday come from a range of sources that include the Nordic people all the way to the Hindu religion. All of these false conjectures surrounding this holy day’s origin have caused some to dismiss this special day altogether. However, let me be clear that though these religious beliefs have similarities, the origin of the practices of Ash Wednesday can be seen throughout the Old Testament, New Testament, and Early Church history. In the Old Testament, Job repented in dust and ashes,[1] Daniel prayed and fasted in sackcloth and ashes,[2] and the king of Nineveh repented of his sins by fasting, putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes after the prophet Jonah called for Nineveh to repent.[3] In the New Testament, Jesus even discusses the connection of repentance and ashes in Matthew 11:21.[4] There is also evidence that the early church continued to use ashes in the practice of repentance. Tertullian, one of the early church fathers wrote in his essay, De Pcenitentia, that one who is in a time of repentance should reflect the mourning of his repentance by wearing sackcloth and ashes.[5] Therefore, the claim and belief that the practices of Ash Wednesday and, thus, Ash Wednesday itself comes from a pagan origin is a false claim that clearly discounts a myriad of evidence that says otherwise.

Now, any member of a Christian denomination that does not recognize the practice of Ash Wednesday may be wondering why they should care about this holy day. The reason is because of what this holy day represents. First and foremost, Ash Wednesday represents a time of repentance. This can be seen in the phrase spoken to the participant as ashes are being placed on his forehead “repent and believe in the Gospel.” This phrase mirrors Matthew 4:17,[6] Mark 1:15,[7] Luke 5:32,[8] and Acts 3:19.[9] Repentance is a key part of the Gospel and of our relationship with Christ. Christ calls all to repent, to turn away from their sinful ways and turn toward Him and His perfect ways. Though all Christians believe that repentance should be a practice done all throughout the year, Ash Wednesday is a special day during which one can be reminded of our need to repent (a reminder that we sometimes require). It brings our focus toward the practice of repentance and it makes us reflect on our own personal relationship with Christ.

Another element that Ash Wednesday represents is mankind’s need for humility. The other phrase commonly spoken to the participant as ashes are being placed on his forehead, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” reflects the curse that man brought upon himself during the Great Fall. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded by the greatness of mankind. One can see the art of Leonardo da Vinci, read the poems of William Shakespeare, fly an airplane that can go 6 times the speed of sound, and save countless lives through the invention and use of antibiotics. Every day, we are reminded of how great we are. However, it is important that we don’t allow our pride in humanity to outweigh our love and recognition of our need for Christ. We must never forget that God, an uncreated being, created us from dust and when we die, as we all will, we will return to the dust from which we were once made. Ash Wednesday asks us to take time out of our year to remember our origin, to remember the curse that humanity brought upon itself through disobedience toward God and it forces us to face our own inconsequential existence.

As you read this, I’m sure that you are feeling pretty gloomy. Not only have we been reminded of our own sinful nature, but also our true place in time and space. Surprisingly, this is a good place to be because when we are reminded of our own failures and our own insignificance, this forces us to see our own need of our Creator. This is exactly what Ash Wednesday is about. It is an annual reminder to the people of God that they need Him. It doesn’t matter if you are Evangelical, Reformed, Liturgical, or Charismatic, we all need this reminder. We all need a moment in which we are reminded that we are in desperate need of a Savior and that repentance and submission to God are both important parts to the Gospel. We need that moment in which we are forced to bring our focus back to the only being that matters, God.

“Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me!
‘Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea with doors
when it burst forth, coming out of the womb,
when I made the storm clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
when I prescribed its limits,
and set in place its bolts and doors,
when I said, ‘To here you may come
and no farther,
here your proud waves will be confined’?’”

I love the book of Job. It’s one of my favorite books of the Bible because it reminds me every time I read it that God is above all, in control of all and judge over all. I encourage you to read at least chapters 38-42 of Job this week and find humility in your personal recognition of your need for God and take the time this week to bring your focus back to God and His role not only in your life but in the universe as well. Dare to be humbled like Job and say:

“Indeed, I am completely unworthy—how could I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth to silence myself. 
I have spoken once, but I cannot answer;
twice, but I will say no more.”

To any Christian that says that Ash Wednesday is a pointless and useless holy day that holds no significance to the modern day Christian, I ask you to look beyond yourself and see your own insignificance, see your ash filled origin and your dust filled destination. Recognize God’s sovereignty and power. Be in awe of your creator and be humbled as you bring your focus back to God.

Ash Wednesday is so much more than a ritualistic holy day. To millions of people all over the world, Ash Wednesday is a subtle moment at the beginning of an important period of sacrifice and prayer. It is a time in which we are reminded of our own need for Jesus Christ, our need for repentance; a time in which we are humbled before our God and recognize not only His sovereignty but His own sacrifice and love for us.

[1] Job 42:6– “Therefore I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes!”

[2] Daniel 9:3– “So I turned my attention to the Lord God to implore him by prayer and requests, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”

[3] Jonah 3:6 “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on ashes.”

[4] Matthew 11:21– ““Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

[5] Philip Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 3, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 664.

[6] Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

[7] Mark 1:15– “He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!””

[8] Luke 5:32– “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

[9] Acts 3:19– “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out…”

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