Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
The ashes we are going to use are made from the Palms of previous year’s Palm Sunday branches. It is also significant that we use palm branches to make these ashes. The palms are a symbol of victory. By making the ashes from the palms of Palm Sunday we are reminded of how all our victories are but ashes before the glory of God
Where did this strange tradition come from of putting ash on our foreheads this day and what does it mean? First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. The first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. One that is meant to remind us that without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just like these ashes: lifeless – worthless. These ashes are also a sign of repentance. Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent and change our ways. In biblical times it was common for people who were mourning to dress in sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. We put the ashes on our foreheads to show that we are marked as Christ’s own through our baptism.
These ashes also point us back to Jesus Christ. They remind us of the dusty roads he walked upon as he brought the Good News to all people and of that last road he walked through Jerusalem, where he suffered rejection, trial and death on the cross. They not only remind us of Jesus’ route on Good Friday they also remind us of how far we lag behind in our attempts to follow him.
We are also reminded of the events of Holy Week – and of how the victory of Jesus over sin was won for us on Good Friday.
The ashes remind us that Christ went on ahead of us – and still goes on ahead of us. They summon us to follow him and to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, to stick with him when he is arrested, and to claim him when we are asked with Peter, “Are you not a follower of that Man Jesus?”
When the match is put to the dry palms, they flare up quickly, and just as quickly die into ash. For a moment they are light and heat and power, and in the next moment they are changed into lifeless ash. The power and light dim as quickly as did the shouts of the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the shouts that changed so quickly from “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify him!”
The lifeless ashes remind us how much of our own discipleship may amount to the same thing – a flash in the pan, a parade on a spring day, but nothing permanent, and nothing lasting.
So as you begin your Lenten Journey don’t be like the flash of the dry palms, but work to make your journey one that will last not just through Lent, but through the rest of your life. And as we leave, will we all walk away with something, other than just a smudge on our foreheads, hopefully a better understanding what it means to be marked as Christ’s own.
Take time to appreciate life and to understand your mortality on earth and look forward to everlasting life in Christ.
Let us pray. Lent is a special time to reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to prepare ourselves for that glorious day of the resurrection. To learn to walk with Christ and to thank Him for the sacrifice he made for us. And accept the grace and forgiveness that marks you as a redeemed child of God. Amen