Ashes and Oil: Celebrating Ash Wednesday

Blog Post by Brandon Adent

A man with a large, pointy hat dipped a bony finger into a glass bowl, like a child reaching for the last morsels of cookie dough. As the finger re-emerged from the vessel, black with dust from the shelf you need a stool to reach, a woman knelt before the hatted man, hands folded anxiously, not bothering to wipe her eyes or stop the purple running down her nose. Reaching out, the finger smeared the substance onto her quivering forehead in the shape of a cross. As the woman stood, she moved her hands in a way I'd never seen, then walked away, tears streaming, as another came to take her place.

It's been many years, but the images have stayed with me, however molded they may be in the years between then and now, images beamed into our living room via the miracle of television. Why would you let a man rub dirt on your face? She's crying, so it must hurt! Why are her hands folded?! She should unfold them, hit him and run away before he hurts anyone else! Why is there a line for that? 

To an 8 year old, the ritual was bizarre. Even now, it seems bizarre.

I grew up in a home that loves Jesus, but didn't really celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent. When I asked my parents, they said the woman was crying because she was sad about her sin. The concept was mostly foreign to me. Mostly because I didn’t think I had that much of it. Sure, I wasn’t perfect, but Jesus was, right? And He died for the sin that I did have. So why do I need to be sad for my sin?

What Is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the official start of the season of Lent, six and a half weeks in total, consisting of 40 week-days of fasting as an act of repentance prior to Easter, or, Resurrection Sunday. The institution of the day, or the season, is not in your Bible. It was set up by the early church to provide some structure in how to think about, and prepare for, Resurrection Sunday.

First observed in the 7th century, Ash Wednesday served as an invitation for certain people to publically begin a season of penance. This specific practice then fell into disuse, and was re-instituted in the 10th-ish century, but opened up to the general congregation rather than “certain people”.* As a part of the ceremony, the repentant were marked with ashes as an outward symbol of an inward disposition of the heart; that is, a heart that loves Jesus, one that mourns sin as offensive before a holy God, and acknowledges their inability to meet God’s standard of perfection apart from Christ.

A lot has happened since then. Ash Wednesday has probably been abused and misused, twisted to mean something it was never meant to over the years. I don’t know the specifics, and even if I did, I wouldn’t get into them here.

Again, it’s important to remember that  “Ash Wednesday” the service, the start of the season of Lent, is not in our Bibles. Because God has not prescribed structure here, we are free to use old traditions and modify them to our current context, so long as they are not sinful and offensive to God or harmful to our community. 

Over the next six minutes or so, I want to explain why we celebrate Ash Wednesday today, how we celebrate it, and why it matters as we go about our lives.


Why We Celebrate

In the Bible, we see several instances where God calls His people to Himself in “solemn assembly” (Neh 9, Numbers 29:12) The primary objective of these gatherings was not to subjugate people with feelings of guilt or condemnation. Rather, it was to show off the glory of God by the preaching and reading of his word, realize the inability of His people to meet the standard set, to recognize that sin is willful slavery, and to respond in worship to a God who shows mercy (the withholding of punishment) and grace (unmerited favor) to His people.

Ash Wednesday is a continuation in that tradition. We need to constantly be reminded that our sin is a big deal. That it’s offensive to our Creator. That it’s rebellion against the King of the universe. That it’s hurtful to our Father in Heaven, that it makes Him sad and angry that we would choose to worship anyone or anything but Him.

So, if we’re talking about something so harmful as sin, why do I keep talking about how and why we “celebrate” Ash Wednesday?

Again, the purpose of this service is not to make us feel guilty for our sin; it’s to remind us that Jesus is bigger and better than our sin. Where we fail, Jesus has succeeded, and being found in Him is more satisfying than any act of sin we can conceive.

Such an occasion calls for celebration!


How We Celebrate

Since and Ash Wednesday service follows in the tradition of “solemn assembly”, we celebrate in many ways that the Bible says people celebrated. We’ll read God’s Word. We’ll hear God’s Word explained. We’ll sing some songs. We’ll pray. We’ll receive communion. All things that we would do in a typical Sunday service.

However, as a tangible, physical reminder of repentance and the mercy and grace found in Jesus, we’ll do a little something extra, that has its roots in the establishment of Ash Wednesday.


Back in the days when the Old Testament was written, people used to dump ashes on their heads as a sign of mourning sin, either that they had committed, or had been committed against them.  (Tamar in 2 Sam 13:19, Mordecai in Esther 4:1, Job in Job 42:6). Ashes were a symbol of mourning in ancient culture, and often accompanied by sackcloth (think wearing an itchy burlap shirt) and fasting. One did this to 1.) be physically miserable as a reminder that they needed communion with God more than they needed physical comfort and 2.) Show everyone how miserable they were.

You wouldn’t tell a joke to a person in mourning. In fact, you would probably go out of your way to avoid such a person. Such signs show that we care about sin and brokenness, recognize that it grieves our Father and King, that we wish it didn’t exist, and that where the sin is ours, we want to turn from it.


Anointed With Oil

Similarly, people would be anointed with oil as a sign. But not as one of mourning. Being anointed with oil was a sign of favor, of holiness, of set-apartness. The kings were anointed with oil when they were called to lead and serve their people (1 Sam 10, 16:13), priests when they were called into temple service (Exodus 30:22). 

The oil is fragrant, the point being that the wearer can -figuratively speaking- smell God’s favor on their foreheads.

This is an outward sign of an inward reality that God ordained before time itself. The oil does not put God’s favor on you. Only Jesus can do that. 

And if you’re in Him, He has! God knew who you would become before you were born. He knew the sin you’d commit, no matter how hidden you think it is. And He sent His Son to die for you, that you would be washed clean of all your wickedness given a perfect, sinless, good-deed-filled record before the Righteous Judge, and adopted into the family of God Almighty.

The oil is meant to remind us of all this, and mixed with the ashes, it reminds us of the favor we have despite the sin in our lives.


Why This All Matters

We’ve talked about the roots of the Ash Wednesday “holy-day”, where it comes from, and how we observe it as a church.

So why does all this matter?

In 1517, Martin Luther began his 96 Theses with “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

Repentance, as we said before, is the act of turning from sin toward the Savior.

Every moment of every day, we need to face the Savior as individuals. But we shouldn’t stop there. God has certainly saved us individually, but when He saves us, He saves us into a community of people that we get to call family.

Ash Wednesday is a great opportunity to get together with members of the family and seek after God together. To see and hear how great He is, to really take a look at the ugliness of our sin and the sweetness and beauty of His grace, and to turn to Him in repentance.

If you’re available, we’d love to have you join us Wednesday, February 18 at 6:30 PM to celebrate Ash Wednesday.

Source: “Ash Wednesday” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Page 116. Copyright 2005 Oxford University Press.