No one really knows the exact origins of Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. A ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is contained in an 8th-century church document, but we know the influences for this solemn observance stretch all the way back to Old Testament times. Here are three verses for Ash Wednesday:
“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19)
This is the final curse that God pronounces on Adam and Eve after they bit into the forbidden fruit. God’s words are a reminder that we, too, sinned with our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Their disobedience is our disobedience, and all sins leads to death (Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23).
The common ritual for Ash Wednesday includes this sobering intonation: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” These words are a cold slap in the face: death will come for all us. While this may seem like a “downer,” it is actually meant to be a motivator. We should make the most of the days that God has given us, doing all we can to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
“I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
After a barrage of tragedies, Job angrily challenges God to a showdown. He wants to take the Almighty to court and bring charges against Him. At the end of the book, God reveals Himself in splendor, firing off a series of questions that remind Job that he has not created the wonders of the universe.
When Job said that he despised himself, it did not mean that he thought he was a worm to be trampled into the earth. As a righteous man, he knew that he bore the image of God and was higher than even the angels. He simply meant that he repudiated his reckless words and repented in dust and ashes, a common way to show sorrow in ancient times.
The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon suggested that Job repented of the following acts and attitudes:
He repented of the terrible curse he had pronounced upon the day of his birth (Job 3:1).
He repented of his desire to die.
He repented of his despair.
Finally, in the presence of the Infinite, Job repented that he rashly spoke beyond his finite knowledge.
“…give unto them beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3).
Jesus Himself used the opening of this chapter to declare His Messiahship in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-22). He declared that He had come to restore what sin had destroyed.
We human beings have an aversion to bowing before God. We think about how humiliating it would be. Rather than get down on our knees, we stand arrogantly on our feet — but when our hands are full of pride, we have no room to receive divine blessings.
In this beautiful passage of Isaiah, a “Great Exchange” takes place. We give God our grief; He gives us the oil of joy. We give Him the spirit of heaviness; He drapes us in a garment of praise. When we hand over the ashes of our dirty past, God fits us for a shining crown of beauty. We are no longer in “survival mode,” clinging to dry soil. We become oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, flourishing in divine light. In all of this, God is glorified!