Today marks the official beginning of Lent, otherwise known as Ash Wednesday. Historically, the season of Lent calls Christians to reflect on their mortality and need for a savior. This year Lent spans from March 9th to April 24th, a total of forty-six days—although Sundays are not typically included (40 days total). The 40 days of Lent represent the time that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by Satan (Matt 4, Mark 1:12-13& Luke 4). It is meant to be a special time of fasting and prayer as we attempt to focus our hearts and minds on the beauty of God and His gospel rather than the transient things of this world. Ash Wednesday holds special significance for Christians beyond merely being the first day of Lent. Today is to be a day of repentance.
But why the Ash?
Ashes are a common motif throughout Scripture that symbolize mourning over sin and the act of repentance. In Job 42:1-6, Job responds to God after God has shown his power.
1 Then Job answered the Lord: 2 “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted; 3 you asked,‘Who is this who darkens counsel without knowledge?’ But I have declared without understanding things too wonderful for me to know. 4 You said,‘Pay attention, and I will speak;I will question you,and you will answer me.’5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye has seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes!
Ash Wednesday is the day that we recognize the weight of our sin and look forward with anticipation the day when sin will be no more. It is not a day where we simply put ash on our foreheads to show that we are religious, rather it is a day that we despise the sin that indwells.
But when is the last time we actually thought about the severity of our sin? When is the last time we actually pondered how much God hates it? When is the last time we ask God to bring about such a hatred for sin in our lives that it caused deep mourning?
When I was eight years old I was probably playing outside, annoying my sister, or thinking the world revolved around my wants and needs. In the Old Testament there was an eight year old kid who was King. His name was Josiah and his story of repentance is soul-stirring.
When Josiah had been king for eighteen years, he ordered that the temple of God be restored (2 Kings 22). To this point, Israel and Judah has been ransacked with idols and false gods and during the temple repair, Hilkiah the high priest found the Book of the Law (v. 8). When Josiah heard the words of the law he tore his clothes as sign of anguish and despair. Josiah recognized that God’s people had not walked in his ways and his wrath was upon them (v. 13).
The mourning and anguish caused Josiah to do radical and seemingly nonsensical things. He defiled all the places of false worship by tearing down and burning anything dedicated to a false god. He sought out the false prophets, had them put to death, and burned them. He killed and burned any livestock that was used for worship of a false god. He dug up the bones of the false prophets of old and burned their bones! Every altar, every tomb, every prophet (dead or alive), every shrine and every monument was defiled and destroyed at his command! Everything that portrayed Israel’s disobedience and idolatry was reduced to ash. This is true repentance and thus it is said of King Josiah, “No king before or after repented before the Lord as he did, with his whole heart, soul, and being in accordance with the whole law of Moses (2 Kgs 23:25).”
That is the aim of Ash Wednesday. Not merely an outward religious ceremony, but a turning of our whole heart, soul, and being to our great God. May God’s people take on an attitude of repentance that stands in the tradition of King Josiah. May we reflect on the severity of our sin and the abounding great grace and mercy of our Triune God!