What is ash? It is the soot left behind when something is burned away. Ash is what is left in a wood stove when the heat and light of the flame are gone.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Though not often recognized in Salvation Army congregations, it is becoming more common in Protestant churches. On Ash Wednesday, people of faith gather in churches to have ash smudged across their foreheads in the form of a cross. The ash comes from the burned palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday service. As the ashes are placed on the forehead, it is customary to recite, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (see Genesis 3:19).
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. The spiritual intent is to first of all remind us of our humanity. The first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. This powerful image reminds us that we are as ash, humbly dependent on the breath of God for our living, moving and being.
Second, the ashes are a sign of repentance. In the biblical story of Jonah, we read of an entire city dressing in sackcloth and ashes as an act of repentance (see Jonah 3:5-7). Sackcloth and ashes were used as an outward sign of an inward reality, making visible the heart’s desire to be made right with God. The ashes applied on Ash Wednesday symbolize an inner spirit of repentance.
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter. There are 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday—not counting Sundays, which remain days of celebration as Christians remember the Resurrection of the Lord. The season of Lent in the church calendar is a time to intentionally focus on repentance and renewal. During Lent, we journey into death—beginning with repentance and self-examination, we seek to put to death sin and the power it has in our lives.
The ashes applied on Ash Wednesday symbolize an inner spirit of repentance
I remember a professor excitedly sharing with our class her joy in wearing the ash cross on her forehead. She explained that when people pointed out the apparent dirt on her face, she would share the story of Jesus and her desire to humble herself before him, in a spirit of repentance, as she prepared for the celebration and lifting up that comes with the Resurrection of Easter.
My curiosity was piqued and I set out to find and participate in an Ash Wednesday service. I entered quietly and listened to the worship leader read from the book of Joel: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes.…
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, return with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:1-3, 13).
I went forward and knelt to receive the symbol of repentance and to share in prayer. “Forgive us Lord for our times of faithlessness, as we confess, send your gift of cleansing rest. Forgive us, Lord, for going our own way. Lord, we confess that we need your holiness, to be a people who will pray, a people who will say we have no other God, no other God but you.”
Reflecting on the memory of my first Ash Wednesday service, I am reminded of the closing session of the Boundless Congress held in London, England, this past summer. Dramatic images of fire on massive screens in the O2 arena gave all who gathered the impression that we were in a blazing furnace. The congregation of thousands bellowed out words written by William Booth, “Send the fire.”
The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda may not be hosting many Ash Wednesday services today, but we are a people who know the need for repentance and renewal. As Salvationists, we enter the season of Lent with the heart cry, “Burn up every trace of sin, bring the light of glory in, let the revolution now begin, send the fire!”
Lt-Colonel Ann Braund is the territorial secretary for spiritual life development.