Skip to content


” The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord , and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes , the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord , that He may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)

There are two ways to bring the human body to its original state. 1) By the natural process of decomposition in the grave, resulting in dust. 2) By cremation, resulting in ashes. Over the centuries, the concept of dust and ashes has always pointed to our mortality. “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

When people are suffering, they are reminded of their mortality; sitting in dust and ashes has been a way of displaying this. After losing his wealth, his children, and his good health, Job expressed his suffering by sitting in ashes (2:8). — When people are grieving over their sins, they are reminded that sin is the cause of mortality: dust and ashes are an acknowledgment of this truth. When the Lord confronted him with his sins, Job said, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. ” (42:6)

Ash Wednesday, a day of dust and ashes . It is the first step in the Lenten journey. This is a journey of suffering and sorrow, as we walk in spirit with Christ on His via dolorosa, His “road of sorrow” leading to Calvary. Midweek services focus on the shame and agony that our Savior endured on our behalf.

For centuries, on Ash Wednesday, people have used ash smudges on their foreheads to symbolize their sorrow over the sins that brought our punishment upon our Redeemer. Sadly, too many times, the symbolism has become only an external act. However, the true Christian—whether or not he puts a smudge on his forehead or sits in ashes—is sincere in his repentance. On Ash Wednesday, we do not merely “go through the motions.” Jesus suffered for OUR sins. Therefore, our grief is real.

Real it is, but also short-lived, not because we forget about it the next day, but because our Savior gives the grieving sinner “beauty for [instead of] ashes.” The word that Isaiah uses for “beauty” refers to a beautiful headdress. On Ash Wednesday, we look in the mirror of the Law and uglify our heads with sorrow’s “ashes.” But then, praise be to God, He washes the ashes from our heads and adorns them with a beautiful headdress. The washing is that of forgiveness; the adorning is with the headdress of Jesus’ righteousness.

While the journey of Lent will be filled with the sights and sounds of Christ’s anguish leading to His death, it will not end there. If it did, there would be only ashes. The journey takes us beyond the cross to the tomb, where we await the third day. It is by virtue of Christ’s victorious resurrection that our ashes are replaced by His beauty. Therefore, we “give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; [and] worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” (Psalm 29:2)

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord ; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10 – ESV)

John Pfeiffer is retired from the pastoral and teaching ministry. He is a former president of Immanuel Lutheran College.