In Defense of Ashes
-- by Paul G. Donelson --

      While many of those knowledgeable in worship suggest that ashes are a sign of penitence, mortality and purification, others say that the ash is a superstitious, useless symbol.
      The Bible has a number of references about ashes.  The first comes in Genesis 18:27. Here Abraham is bargaining with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He suddenly realizes that he, a mere mortal, has been speaking to Almighty God.  He says, "Behold I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes." 
      The words "dust and ashes" are used together in Job 30:19, and 42:6. The Hebrew words have the same consonant sounds.  One might rightfully conclude that the word ash carries with it much the same theological connotation as the word dust.1
      Dust and ashes are also synonymns of the word earth (adamah). From this word are derived Adam and the Hebrew word for man.  Genesis 3:19 even makes a play on these words with: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," a sentence which is echoed in the Ash Wednesday service.
      Ecclesiastes says it as well: "All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecc. 3:20).  From these passages we get the sentence used in the committal service.   Ashes, therefore, are a symbol of our mortality, of the fact that we are tied to the earth; nothing in us is immortal unless God gives it to us.
      But ashes are also a symbol of repentance.  In Jonah 3:6, after hearing of Jonah's message of repentance, the king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits "in ashes."  In those days such kings were considered godlike.  By sitting in ashes, the king of Nineveh shows his people that he is not immortal.
      Job also makes use of the ashes symbolism.   In Job 30:19 he uses it to describe his mortality.  In 42:6, realizing these limitations compared to God's infinite power, he uses dust and ashes to symbolize the intensity of his repentance. Certainly, this act of despising one's self goes against the tomes of popular Christianity, which have lately suggested that one cannot love one's neighbor without first loving one's self.  However, we might find Job's act more in line with what Jesus said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate . . . even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). This act of despising in the midst of repentance is best symbolized by ashes.
      Ashes also symbolize our sorrow since human sorrow is often caused by the same thing that reminds us of our mortality and/or of our need to repent.
      In 2 Samuel 13 Amnon rapes Tamar.   Tamar's response is to "put ashes on her head" (2 Samuel 13:19).   In Jeremiah 6:26 the daughters of Jerusalem are told to "roll in ashes" because they will be destroyed.
       In Numbers 19:9 and 17, ashes are used in the rites of purification. Hebrews 9:13-14 draws directly upon this symbolism with these words: "For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God."
     While we do not believe that ashes have any power to purify us of our sin, their use can remind us of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ, especially if that symbol is placed upon our bodies in the form of a cross.2
      In fact, the use of the cross is a reminder of allusions made in The Revelation.  In 7:3 and 9:4 there is the description of those who have an identifying seal on their foreheads, and this seal is the name of Christ (14:1). In 2:17 and 3:12 it is even a new name.  This concept comes from Ezekiel 9:4-6, where an angel of the Lord is instructed to mark all those who were troubled at the sin around them with a cross on their foreheads.3
      Jesus also makes use of this symbolism when he speaks of two towns that need to repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes" (Matthew 11:21. See also Luke 10:13).
      The use of the ash was a part of the symbolism of the Jewish faith and, therefore, was naturally assumed by the early Christian Church, many of whose members were Christian Jews.
       It is important for us to continue a regular regimen of repentance.  John Wesley pointed out, "This repentance and faith [should be as] full as necessary, in order to our continuance and growth in grace, as the former faith and repentance are [as when we first believed], in order to our entering into the kingdom of God."4
      It is unfortunate that so much of the Protestant church got away from the use of the ash as a symbol, as rich as it is.  We are now beginning to take our history and our integrity in worship more seriously in rediscovering some of Christendom's more significant symbols.
     What a terrible shame it would be for us if we were to simply dismiss such beautiful and meaningful tools as being the sole possession of another denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church.  We wouldn't think of eliminating the symbol of water in Baptism, or wind and fire as symbols of the Spirit, simply because someone else used them first.
     The ancient Greeks once divided the cosmos into four elements: earth, fire, air and water.  Another element was added later which was described as being the substance of the heavenly bodies.5  In many ways these five elements have played an important part throughout the history of God's people. The use of all of the elements, including the ash, therefore, is something that belongs to all of the Church.

Footnotes

  1. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdman's Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976) vo. IX, p. 472, n. 4.
  2. From Ashes to Fire (Abingdon: Nashville, 1979), p. 47.
  3. Laurence H. Stookey, Baptism—Christ's Act in the Church (Abingdon: Nashville, 1982) pp, 110-112.
  4. The Works of John Wesley, vol. V, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Mich., 1978) p. 156.
  5. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Random House: New York, 1980), p. 185.