Remember that you were...separated from Christ, alienated...having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a hold temple in the Lord. In him you also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:12-22)
What is the meaning of Ash Wednesday? Today marks the first day of Lent, a time to prepare for Easter. In the Old Testament, sinners poured ashes on their heads and wore sack cloth to indicate regret for their sin: "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42: 6) Since the Middle Ages, in imitation of the Old Testament books of the Law, Christians likewise wear ashes on their head to mark the beginning of Lent and demonstrate their repentance. In the 10th century, rather than sprinkle the head with ashes, Christians began wearing ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross. The cross give us a glimpse of the joy that soon will be celebrated when we acknowledge the hope and new life that are ours because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection three days later.
During the application of ashes at Ash Wednesday services in our time, the pastor will usually recite, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). What is the purpose of wearing ashes in our day and age? And, why would we want to be reminded that we will die? How can this give us any consolation? The symbolic practice displayed on Ash Wednesday calls to mind that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Each of us is in need of forgiveness and hope. The ashes and Scripture remind us that we will surely die. Yet, the cross points us to the forgiveness that can be ours through Jesus Christ who cleanses us from sin and releases us from the threat of eternal damnation.
When teaching at a local college, some of my students came to class early Ash Wednesday morning with the imprint of the cross still on their foreheads. Some Christians leave ashes on their forehead through Ash Wednesday to publicly confess their sins and demonstrate that everyone is sinful, that each of us is in need of forgiveness and to proclaim that we are forgiven and made new through faith in Jesus Christ. Today, each of us can be open about our frailty and honestly admit that we are all guilty of sin. Every human will experience death. And, each of us is in need of a Savior.
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that without God, we have no hope in the world (v. 12). Yet now, because of Christ's love for us, "in Christ Jesus [we] who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (v. 13). Just as we have sinfulness in common, "through Christ, we are united in faith. We are no longer separated from each other and from God but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
Dear God, whether or not I openly wear ashes today on my forehead, I recognize that I am sinful and in need of Your forgiveness. Thank You that through You and by Your Spirit, I am united with other believers. Because of Your sacrifice, I am no longer separated from You. You have promised me eternal life with the "saints and members of Your household." I want to open my heart to You so that it is a "dwelling place for God by the Spirit." As I prepare for Easter, I remember the redemption You extend to me and the hope You give all who trust in Your mercy and grace. In Jesus' Name. Amen