It’s a striking visual, given many times in the Old Testament. The people tear their clothes and put on sackcloth (which is about as comfortable as burlap bags.) They sprinkle ashes on their forehead, fast from food and drink, and sit somewhere visible to repent. (cf. Jonah 3:5-10) Something terrible has happened, and this is the way to mourn or to demonstrate true repentance.
Ash Wednesday preserves the use of ashes and fasting for Christians as a sign of repentance. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is ultimately the prelude to the joy of Easter; but the prelude to joy in many great stories is often the setback that finally forces the story’s conflict to climax. In this case, it is a reminder of our sins and of the need to be sorry for the wrongs that we have done. It is a reminder of how much we need a Saviour; of our need for forgiveness.
Despair is not the point; if we despair, we’ve missed the message. The ashes on our foreheads take the shape of a cross for a reason; though we are sinners, we have a certain hope. Liturgically minded Christians adopt purple as the color of this season, as the color of penitence, but it is also the color of royalty. We fast, but what ought to fill our time of fasting is not sorrow but hope. Repentance, sorrow, contrition, confession take place; but these are not the motions of a criminal on death row. It is the active love of a wayward son preparing to return home to his Father’s feast.
Today is a day of repentance which points to the joy and hope the whole world received two thousand years ago and continues to receive anew each Easter. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel!” (Mark 1:15b)