Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down – and Rise to New Life in Christ Jesus
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and sets the tone of the season. It is a pointed call to repentance, returning Christians to the dying and rising of their Baptism by way of confession and faith in the forgiveness of sins. The imposition of ashes, for which the day is named, recalls both the mortality of sinful man, inherited from Adam, and the redemption of Christ, into which His disciples are baptized. This context of contrition and repentance, centered in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, is the framework within which the entire Lenten fast is undertaken.
Ashes are used on Ash Wednesday as an outward indication of repentance and humility in view of man’s mortality and sin, but so also in the hope of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. He is the new and better Adam, who returns to the dust of the earth from which man was taken, but whom God the Father raises from the dead for the justification and reconciliation of all the sons and daughters of man (Rom. 4:16-25; 5:12-19; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; 1 Cor. 15:42-49).
With or without the imposition of ashes, the Gospel for this day (St. Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21) features several key practices of the Christian faith and life – fasting, almsgiving, and prayer – which are appropriately intensified during Lent. As an exercise of faith and love, these basic Christian disciplines serve to cleanse our life on earth and facilitate the fruits of repentance.
Fasting is an exercise of self-denial, a conscious and deliberate resisting of our fleshly appetites. In contrast to the grasping and eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3:1-6), it follows the example of our Lord Jesus, who fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and even then rejected the devil’s temptation to feed Himself (St. Matt. 4:1-4). By fasting, we train ourselves to hunger, not for the food that perishes, but for the Word of God in Christ Jesus, who is Himself the Living and Life-giving Bread from heaven (St. John 6:26-33).
Almsgiving comprises the charity that is provided for the care of the poor and needy, above and beyond our ongoing support of the church and ministry. It often accompanies the discipline of fasting, since the practice of self-denial allows for greater generosity in serving thy neighbor. Not simply “giving up something for Lent,” but sacrificing self in order to love and care for others.
Prayer is, of course, the calling and occupation of all Christians at all times and in all places. It is the very voice of faith and a participation in the priestly intercessions of Christ Jesus, who is our merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God (Hebrews 2:17; Romans 8:34). As He offered Himself once for all, as a ransom for the many, and prayed for those who put Him to death (1 Timothy 2:5-6; St. Luke 23:34), so do we also pray without ceasing and not lose heart (St. Luke 18:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). We offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all people, “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We likewise pray and intercede for our enemies and those who persecute us (St. Matthew 5:44). Such prayer is the central practice of faith toward God and of fervent love for the neighbor.