Ash Wednesday invites us to stop and think. Did you ever stop and think how odd it is that we get blessed with ashes on this day? The ashes themselves should prompt us to ask this question.
As a sacramental (Not a sacrament), the ashes on our forehead are a sign that points us and others towards God. Of all sacramentals, Ash Wednesday ashes are the most literal sign of contradiction. They signify our mortality, our sinfulness, and hence our need for redemption; and also the price of our redemption.
We are mortal. Ashes are always the product of matter that is already perished and destroyed. Our earthly bodies will undergo corruption at the end of this life. Ashes on Ash Wednesday immediately bring this notion to mind upon seeing them. Not everyone knows, however, that these particular ashes are the burnt remains of the palms used on Palm Sunday. As such, they also point toward Christ’s passion, and thus, signify Christ’s becoming a man whose body, like ours, was subject to death. He was like us in all things but sin and we know this because he died for us.
We are sinners. The association between ashes and sinfulness goes back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, covering oneself in ashes — accompanied by wailing and ripping one’s clothes off — was a sign of repentance and begging for God’s mercy. Thus we begin the season of Lent, not with a public display of lamentation for our sins, but with a public reminder that all of us are sinners in need of God’s mercy. The ashes on our heads are visible to everyone else in the form of a cross; for it is only through the cross of Christ that any of us are saved.
We are precious in God’s eyes. Here is the real zinger, what we often miss. The ashes on our heads, a sign that indicates our frailty, imperfection, corruption, and sinful nature, are in the sign of a cross, to signify that we have been purchased at a very high price. The very God we offended by sinning, whom we condemned to death on a cross, redeems us through that cross. Bearing this unique sign in a visible way is a testimony of our gratitude toward him for what he suffered for us.
The ashes, made from burnt palms, in the form of a cross on our foreheads hearken to the sacrifice God made to free us from death and slavery to sin. They are a sign of contradiction, both mournful and joyous, signifying defeat and victory over the grave at the same time.
Is this hard to see? Of course, you cannot see it by just seeing ashes. Those ashes are only meant to be a sign that points to a higher reality other than itself.
The point to Ash Wednesday is not the ashes, but what is behind the ashes. The ashes are a symbol inviting us to look and see our imperfect selves as we really are; then beyond ourselves to Christ the Lord, who through his cross makes all things new.