The Ashes of Repentance
COVER STORY – ASH WEDNESDAY
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.Read More »The Ashes of Repentance