The Inner Work of Ash Wednesday

By Mark D. Roberts

February 8, 2024

Article, De Pree Journal, Lent and Easter, Marketplace Leaders, Third Third

During the winter of my freshman year of college, I went into the dining hall for lunch. As usual, a half dozen women in official uniforms were standing behind the counter, ready to serve the students. When I looked at them, I saw something peculiar. They all had odd black marks on their foreheads. “What in the world is that about?” I wondered. Could this be some sort of “black mark on the forehead” work-related protest? 

I asked one of the women I recognized, “Say, what’s that on your forehead?” She smiled and said in her strong Boston accent, “That’s for Ash Wednesday, dear. I got it in church this morning.” 

“Oh,” I responded, “Ash Wednesday! Now I get it.” 

Though I’d grown up in a church-going family, we never gave Ash Wednesday a thought. That was for Catholics, not Protestants. Ash Wednesday was one of those rituals we were glad to ignore, like giving up something for Lent. I must say, however, I was impressed that all the women in my dining hall had gone to church early on Ash Wednesday morning and proudly wore their black marks on their foreheads. Still, I had no interest in joining them in their traditional practice.

A Pastor Experiences Ash Wednesday

Fast forward seventeen years. I’m the new senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in Southern California. In February of my first year, my worship director asked me in a staff meeting, “What thoughts do you have about our Ash Wednesday service?”

“Ash Wednesday service?” I responded curiously. “We have one of those?” 

“Two actually,” he said, “They’re very popular.” 

“I have no idea about that service. Never done one before. Never even been to one,” I added.

My associate pastor chimed in: “We’ll need you to lead the service, including the imposition of ashes.”

“I’ve never done anything like that. But I’m willing to learn if you’ll teach me.” And so he did. Thus, on March 4, 1992, I experienced my first Ash Wednesday service. I did indeed impose ashes on the heads of the worshippers and received the same sign from one of the other ash-imposers. Looking around at my congregation as the service ended, I remembered those women in my dining hall who wore their ashes so ardently. I had finally joined them in this expression of Christian worship. 

In the three decades since my first experience of Ash Wednesday worship, I have grown to love this tradition. To be sure, it’s not required of Christians. It’s not imposed (pun intended) upon us in Scripture, though the meaning of Ash Wednesday is deeply biblical. But, in Christian freedom, I have learned to value both the meaning of Ash Wednesday and how we worship on this day.

The Meaning of Ash Wednesday

For centuries, Christians have observed Ash Wednesday on the first day of Lent, the liturgical season prepares us for Easter. On Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior. The ashes imposed on the foreheads of worshipers represent the dust mentioned in Genesis 3:19. There God said to the first man, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Why would the man return to the dust? Because he had sinned against the Lord and sin leads to death. 

Back in 1992, when I first imposed ashes on the foreheads of my congregants, I quoted Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” each time I placed ashes on their foreheads. Honestly, it felt odd to be telling people in effect, “You will die.” It seemed especially strange to do this with young children, even infants. After all, when else in life do we tell people that they’re going to die? Yet, when the ceremony was over and we stood with ashes on our foreheads, there was something profound and even wonderful about admitting our mortality together. 

What was wonderful about wearing a sign of death on our foreheads? The shape of the ashes! When I placed ashes on someone, I didn’t just make a big black dot. Rather, I formed a small cross with the ashes. A cross! A symbol of death, to be sure. But also a symbol of death that leads to life. Yes, you are dust and to dust you will return, but because of the cross of Jesus, you will be raised to new life. 

Yet, when the ceremony was over and we stood with ashes on our foreheads, there was something profound and even wonderful about admitting our mortality together. 

On Ash Wednesday, Christians don’t focus on the cross of Christ, however. We save that for Good Friday. Moreover, on Ash Wednesday we don’t begin our joyful celebration of the resurrection. But by having ashes in the form of the cross placed upon our foreheads, we are silently acknowledging where the story goes. 

Ash Wednesday underscores our sinfulness and mortality. It reminds us of how desperately we need a Savior. Thus, it sets us up for six weeks of Lent, a time to prepare our hearts and minds for what is to come, namely remembrance of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. 

Ash Wednesday’s Invitation to Inner Work

Ash Wednesday invites us to do some serious inner work, to think about our life in light of our death. As we worship with ashes on our heads, we’re reminded that we will one day return to the dust. To put it bluntly, we will die. Many of us don’t like to think about that at all. The denial of aging and death runs rampant in our culture. But the fact is that we will all die physically at some point. 

This truth, however uncomfortable it may be, can help us do profound inner work. When we reflect upon our mortality, we are encouraged to live with greater meaning and purpose in the present moment. If I have only so many days of life left, then I want to use them well. Psalm 90, which says to the Lord, “You turn us back to dust,” (v. 3) also adds, “So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart” (v. 12). Taking seriously the fact that we have only so many days in this life can help us live wisely. Thus Psalm 90 ends with this wish prayer, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (v. 17). 

When we reflect upon our mortality, we are encouraged to live with greater meaning and purpose in the present moment.

Whether you plan to participate in an Ash Wednesday worship service this year or not, take to heart the meaning of this holy day. Do the inner work associated with the truth of your mortality. Yes, you are dust and to dust you will return. But the grace and power of God, seen so wondrously in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, will give new life to your mortal body (1 Cor 15:53). The wonderful news of Good Friday and Easter is God’s gracious response to the unhappy truth of Ash Wednesday. 

Questions for Ash Wednesday Inner Work

  • Do you ever think about your own mortality? If so, when? Why? 
  • What difference, if any, does acknowledging your mortality make in how you feel, think, and act? 
  • How would you live the next year of your life if you knew it was your last?

Banner image by Annika Gordon on Unsplash.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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