To kick off this Toolbox series of posts in honor of Lent, we'll look at one of the very visible ways we kick of the Lenten season itself...with ashes!
Ashes are a sign of penance, of mourning, and of repentance. They also remind us of our mortality, of the fact that we do not live forever. Christians inherited this sign from the Jews, it is an ancient tradition.
When a priest marks the forehead with the sign of the cross (or, in some places, sprinkles ashes upon the head) he says one of two things:
"Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return." (Gen. 3:19)
"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." (Mark 1:15)
Here are several scripture verses related to ashes, showing their connection to mourning and repentance:
And all the Israelite men, women and children who lived in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple building, with ashes strewn on their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord. (Judith 4:11)
That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes. (1 Maccabees 3:47)
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes (Matt 11:21)
Ashes are, for us, a symbol of our call to continued conversion, continued repentance, and continued penance. It is a reminder to die to self so that we might have more abundant life in Christ.