Growing up, it always struck me as odd that we would receive ashes on our foreheads on the same day we hear Jesus say, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16).
Now, you haven’t done anything wrong if you’ve received ashes, and you haven’t done anything better if you haven’t.
Ashes, lacking a penitent heart, are like no ashes.
And no ashes, having a penitent heart, are like ashes.
It matters that you repent and believe this Word of God: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Genesis 3:19).
And that’s the point—the come to terms with death.
The death, eventually, of our children and all we know and have.
It doesn’t last.
It will not.
And this is not an easy thought or thing to say.
We might teach our children to pray, “If I die before I wake,” but there are other versions of that prayer, “nicer” versions, that don’t.
And how many adults remember to think and live and act and speak as though the next nap or nightly rest may be your last?
Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
This is why we impose ashes.
We don’t hand them out or distribute them.
It is an imposition, a forceful assertion about all you are and hold dear.
That you are dust. That you will die. And that to dust you shall return.
I know—it’s not a cheerful thought.
But there isn’t a long list of Lenten “carols” for us to sing. Can you imagine caroling with Lenten hymns for the shut-ins? We may as well dress in black and where a scythe.
We don’t send Lenten cards.
We don’t wish each other a merry or happy Lent.
The infant joy that was born into the world has grown and matured.
There is still joy.
But He has set His face toward Jerusalem—that He would take up His cross and suffer all to save all.
There is still joy.
But Lent takes on a dual theme, emphasizing repentance—and then joy.
We impose ashes to be reminded that this body and life is not all there is.
So that we’re ready—when our last hour comes—to meet the Lord face to face.
David says in the Psalm: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
No one can stand before God without bringing this confession of sins with him.
So David also says—If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).
Anyone who wants to stand before God must be sure that this confession of sins comes from his heart and firmly believe that, unless the Lord is merciful to him, all is lost.
No matter how pious he is.
No matter his attendance or tithe or tenure.
Apart from the mercy of God—all is lost.
And there’s no difference—for all have sinned.
This isn’t an easy thought or thing to say.
This is a terrible cross to bear.
But Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
And from the Psalm: “Cast your cares on the Lord, and He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall” (cf. Psalm 55:22).
He doesn’t set His face toward Jerusalem or bear His cross for the same reason we do.
He sets His face, determined to beat down satan under His feet.
He bears His cross, because it’s necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—that all who look to Him would be saved.
Toward Jerusalem, we set our face, marked with cross and ash, to remember why He went.
“[He] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
We bear our cross to follow Him.
Not that we can save ourselves—but, in faith, we follow Jesus and trust trust that He has saved us.
The whole life of a Christian is repentance.
But there is joy, too.
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the [author] and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 11:1-2).
The joy that was set before Him—His goal and end—was your salvation.
That’s what faithfulness to God the Father meant to Jesus—your salvation.
That’s what drinking the cup of cross and death meant to Jesus—your salvation.
Your God chose you and won.
He won you from sin and satan, from death and hell.
He is your priceless treasure.
And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If not “happy” or “merry” how about “blesséd.”
And may God bless and keep you in the true faith—in repentance and joy—unto life everlasting.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Ash Wednesday, 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt