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The Ashes of Repentance


The custom of observing a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection began very early in the Christian church, but practices and customs varied among congregations in different areas. The First Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) unified the Christian church in observing Lent as a period of forty days of fasting and prayer.
In A.D. 601, Gregory the Great decreed that there should be no fasting on Sunday, which was considered a day of celebration of Christ’s resurrection. So in order to maintain the forty days of fasting, he changed the beginning of Lent to Wednesday. Some sources suggest that he was also the one who initiated the practice of smearing ashes on the forehead of worshipers, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (see Genesis 3:19). Thus the first day of Lent became known as Ash Wednesday.
From the most ancient of times in the Bible, ashes have been used to express sorrow and grief. Ashes were used in times of grief over some injustice or loss (2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1), or as a way of humbling oneself before God in prayer (Daniel 9:3, Genesis 18:27), and—perhaps most of all—to express sorrow for sins (Job 42:3–6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). For these reasons people would sit in ashes, roll in them, or sprinkle them over their head.
The use of ashes can be a vivid reminder that we ourselves are nothing but dust and ashes. They remind us of our sin, one consequence of which is the inevitable prospect of being reduced to dust and ashes again. Fasting can be a very concrete reminder of our repentance over sin. If you remember that your fasting is a sign of repentance, the relentless hunger pains can help keep you mindful of repentance throughout the day.
However, God also warns about the human propensity to corrupt these signs of repentance. On the one hand, we might feel superior and holier for fasting or displaying the ashes on our forehead. On the other hand, it can simply become an empty action that has no corresponding repentance in the heart.
God rebukes His people for that very thing in Isaiah 58:3-5, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (ESV)
The season of Lent is a time of prayerful meditation on our Savior’s great love and His sacrifice to take away our sins in order to reconcile us to God. Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us to enter this holy season with true, heartfelt repentance. Whether or not we incorporate some use of ashes and fasting as outward signs of our repentance, let’s be sure we come with a heart of genuine repentance. Then we will see and rejoice in the glory of our Savior “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14) Then God “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.” (1 Samuel 2:8)

David Reim is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Vernon, British Columbia.