Throughout the year, people observe events by wearing symbols. If you saw a woman wearing a brooch in the form of a heart, you would say it is St. Valentine’s Day. A man might wear a shamrock on his lapel on St. Patrick’s Day. And by now, you probably packed away your Christmas ties and sweaters.
Surprisingly, people don gay apparel, shamrocks and hearts without knowing the reasons we wear those symbols. So it is with ashes upon our foreheads. Why do we ask pastors to smudge a cross above our brows on this day?
Hence, Ash Wednesday’s significance, Ash Wednesday’s symbols and Ash Wednesday’s suggestions; or, Day, Dust and Do.
First, Day. The significance of Ash Wednesday is that it is one of the most solemn days of the church year. Forty-six days before Easter, this liturgy marks the beginning of a penitential discipline climaxing on Maundy Thursday. The mood is penitential and reflective. Worshipers keep reverent silence before the service and leave the service in silence. In some churches, there is no greeting at the door by the pastor.
It used to be true that “liturgical churches” — those with a regular, calendar-based liturgy, or set of rituals and observances — marked the day, but nowadays, even Baptist and evangelical churches observe Ash Wednesday.
According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated from this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday is a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ's Resurrection, and a feast day on which fasting is inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Ash Wednesday to that Saturday (4 days), thus making up the number of 40 days.
While there is no Biblical commandment to observe Ash Wednesday, it offers Christians the opportunity to acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness, and confess our imperfections. According to one Evangelical pastor, we can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are: that we all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We stand guilty before a holy God. As mortals, we will someday experience bodily death. Thus, we all need a Savior.
We all need a Savior. And so we move from significance to symbol, from day to dust.
As I applied ashes to your forehead, I spoke the words from Genesis, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, the formula reminds us of our sinfulness and mortality and of our need to repent. A newer formula, from Mark, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” makes explicit what was only implicit in the old, reinforcing the truth that we all need a Savior.
According to the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting, the practice of wearing of ashes on the head symbolizes the dust from which God made us. Ashes express grief. When Tamar was violated by her half-brother, "she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying."
Ashes express sorrow for sins and faults. Job said to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Jeremiah called for repentance by saying, “O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”We find similar mention on the lips of Jesus and elsewhere. So, remember that you are dust.
As dust, you are nothing but common, ordinary dirt, taken for granted and trampled underfoot. One speck of dust looks like the rest. Disagree? You think you are unique? Think again. A billion Chinese never heard of you. You are dust.
Pretty grim, isn’t it? Only if you stop there; only if you stop with the symbol that is dust. But that symbol is incomplete. When I dusted your forehead, I dusted with another symbol: the sign of the cross. That symbol declares that dust has been redeemed. Redeemed not in the shadowy sense but with startling realism.
Ever since Bethlehem and Calvary, this speck of humanity that is you, is now “charged with the grandeur of God.” You are brothers and sisters of God-in-flesh. Your dust is literally electric with God’s own life. Your nothingness is filled with God’s eternity. Your nothingness has Christ’s own shape. You are dust redeemed. That brings me to my final point … do.
The roots of the verb “do” are Middle English and Germanic. It means to bring to pass, to put or to perform or execute.
I believe the best way to walk is to do what Jesus suggested, or better yet, commanded. Jesus is our Way and our Light. The only way to live with courage and conviction as Christians in the face of a world that is blessed and broken is to do what he commanded. Let us use the season of Lent to do what He commanded in today’s Gospel: pray, fast and give alms.
But let us do those things this Lent without anyone knowing, except God. And when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Ash Wednesday Service. The Spirit Annointed Christ for Mercy – Lenten Worship Series. www.lcms.org
 Genesis 3:19
 Mark 1:15
 2 Samuel 3:19
 Job 42:3-6
 Jeremiah 6:26
 Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; Daniel 9:3; 1 Maccabees 3:47; 4:39; Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Esther 4:1; Hebrews 9:13.
 Philippians 4:7