On Ash Wednesday, as the ashes are applied to people, the pastor will repeat to each person this phrase:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
These words paraphrase Genesis 3:19 where the Lord proclaimed a curse upon man when he had first sinned. St. Paul repeated that thought in his letter to the Romans: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. This is the harsh reality of sin.
The use of ashes long pre-dates the New Testament Church. In the era of the Patriarchs, Job confessed his sin and declared, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) The Imposition of Ashes teaches a dual lesson.
1) It is a mark of penitence. We demonstrate outwardly the sorrow for sin that we have inwardly.
2) It is a mark of death. It is a reminder that we are all dust, and to dust we will return. The ashes remind us that we are helpless in our sinful condition. Our only hope is a Savior. We repent of our works. We cling to Jesus for his.
This ceremony truly sets the tone for Lenten season. We are marked as sinners. We are marked for death. We are marked as the penitent whose only hope is Jesus Christ.
Our comfort comes from Jesus who takes our sin. He dies our death. He marks us as his own who have been baptized into his name. That is where the penitent find comfort. That is where the dying find life.
Practical matters regarding the Imposition of Ashes
No one should feel obligated to receive the ashes on the forehead. If you do not want to do it, the ushers will simply pass you by and go to the next row. Children may participate at the discretion of their parents.
We will begin the service with the rite. Where the bulletin indicates, the ushers will begin to invite people by row to come to the communion railing to receive the ashes. The penitent will kneel at the railing (like Lord’s Supper), and wait as the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead in the shape of a cross. Please resist all temptations to scratch or smear the ashes. (The ashes will easily be washed off with soapy water.)