Pastor Greg Scott shares a message about the Biblical inspiration behind the traditions of Ash Wednesday and Lent and guides the congregation through a service of receiving the ashes.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. ~ James 5:16
As we come to the cross tonight, humbly, acknowledging our brokenness, we will also recognize our profound need for God and the things that only He can give. He is the only one who can make our brokenness whole again. So we come together tonight, recognizing our ongoing, daily need of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … ~ Romans 3:23
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’ ~ Matthew 11:20-21
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. ~ Genesis 2:7
In Hebrew, it says the Lord God formed aw-dawm of aw-fawr from the ad-aw-maw. You see how closely the words man, dust and ground are connected. That’s why I call human beings dirt-critters. We are all God’s mud-pies that He brought to life by breathing His Spirit, His life, into us. Just like the first dirt critter that came to life, we too are made of dust. We are full of earth, of ashes. The word aw-fawr, dust, can also, sometimes, be translated as ashes.
By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. ~ Genesis 3:19
In Genesis nineteen God rains down fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah, reducing them and their remaining sinful inhabitants to ashes.
And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.” ~ Genesis 18:27
The word Abraham uses for dust is the same as the one used in Genesis 3, aw-fawr. The word he uses for ashes is the Hebrew word ay’-fer. Very similar yes?
Early church fathers Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) and Eusebius (c. 260-340 AD) both made reference to penitent believers incorporating ashes in an act of repentance, seeking God’s forgiveness. The First Council of Nicaea officially institutionalized the practice of observing 40 Days of Lent in 325A.D.
Why 40 days? Why not 10 or 20 or 50? Well, we’ve talked many times about the symbolic use of numbers in Scripture. The number 40 is an especially important one. 40 always represents a time period of preparation and transition, where the old is passing away and the new is about to come. In Noah’s time, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. Israel was enslaved in Egypt 400 years (10 consecutive periods of 40 years.) Moses fled Egypt when he was forty years old, lived in Midian for another 40 years and then led the Hebrew people for 40 years in the wilderness until they were fully prepared to enter the Promised Land. Moses spent two different periods of 40 days on Mt. Sinai in the early part of that journey communing with God and interceding for the people of Israel. Israel’s spies spent 40 days in Canaan in preparation to invade and possess the promised land. Israel was oppressed by the Philistines for 40 years as a judgment of God. Eli judged Israel for 40 years. Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him.
When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness preparing to begin His official ministry. There were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. These are just a few Biblical examples. 40 days of Lent is a tradition based on this idea. Lent is another 40 day period (actually 40 days plus seven Sundays – 7 is the Biblical number of completion, perfection or wholeness) so lent is 47 days really, of preparation, to repent of all our selfishness and sin, to do away with the old, and be ready to begin our relationship with God anew, with a clean slate, on Resurrection Sunday morning, when we once again celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death.
By the 8th century, it was a common practice for those Christians who were about to die to be laid on sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless them with holy water and say the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Then he would ask the dying person, “Are you content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of your penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?” To which the dying person would reply “I am content.” In other words, “As you face your imminent mortality, is your soul at peace with God and do you know you have forgiveness and eternal life in Christ?” – “I am content with that knowledge. I am ready to die.”
Eventually, the use of ashes, in the sign of the cross on the forehead, was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. What we call Ash Wednesday. In present day practice, the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are often made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The pastor or priest blesses the ashes and makes the sign of the cross with his or her thumb on the forehead of the believer.
The pastor/priest then says, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from all sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” To this, the participant responds with a simple affirmation of “Amen” and often makes the sign of the cross. While making the sign of the cross is often seen as a Roman Catholic practice, I see continued relevance in this as a Protestant believer as well. Making the sign of the cross is a wonderful visual object lesson that reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial act of love on the cross for us. It also reminds us of the first and greatest commandment Jesus told us.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. ~ Mark 12:30
Touching our forehead represents our mind, touching our heart represents our heart, touching each shoulder (arms) represents our strength and the sign of the cross that is formed represents our soul. Making the sign of the cross is also a symbolic method of confessing your faith in the Trinity. We use three fingers, your thumb, pointer and middle finger, pinched together. In making the gesture we are symbolically confessing our faith in the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three in person, one in essence. Touching the head, represents the Father. Touching the heart represents the Son. Touching the shoulders represents the Holy Spirit. Doing so in one fluid motion again represents the Three In One Trinity that is our God.
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. ~ Hebrews 6:4-6
When anyone hears the word about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches what was sown in his heart; this is the seed sown along the path. The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. ~ Matthew 13:19-22
When we read that parable most of us tend to make the same prideful mistake. Don’t just ASSUME that YOU are the GOOD soil.
Alcoholics Anonymous encourages their members in Step Four to, “Take a fearless moral inventory of yourself.”
When we realize the perfect holiness of Jesus is the standard of what is “good enough” we quickly realize all of us could be sooooo much better than we are. We are not 100% good soil.
Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. ~ Micah 6:8
So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ~ Romans 7:21-25a
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. ~ Galatians 3:13a
And there will no longer be any curse, and the throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city. His servants will worship him, and they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. ~ Revelation 22:3-4
These ashes, in the sign of the cross, point to a day when His name will forever be on our foreheads.
Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. ~ James 5:13-16
Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from all sin and be faithful to the Gospel.