Ash Wednesday ranks in my top three favorite liturgies in the Christian year. It’s the closest we come to Yom Kippur, a day of repentance. In protestantism, we feast often and fast little, which is good and right for a community defined by forgiveness and grace. But without an understanding of why we need forgiveness, grace is cheapened. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our sinfulness and frailty, of our need for Christ.
Historically, the ashes were for those who were especially sinful, a shaming tool for those who needed to be extra-penitent. To me, receiving the ashes is to say, “I have grieved God with my sin, I have a need for repentance” standing among sinners with humility and equality, knowing that our belonging to Christ has nothing to do with our merit. And when we do, we make those ashes a sign not of shame, but of community. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. When you do, I hope that you see beauty in the ashes, and a place for you beneath the cross of Jesus.