Anytime I bring up Lent and Ash Wednesday there's always a hesitation and the ultimate, "isn't that a 'Catholic' thing?" Certainly it is something practiced by the Roman Catholic Church, just as Christmas and Easter are. But the underlying assumption when someone asks "isn't that Catholic" is that the practices and observances aren't biblically based but found only in tradition or superstition. Nothing can be further than the truth. The placing of ashes on the forehead during a day of fasting in repentance comes straight from the Bible.
To my Evangelical compatriots who are concerned or confused about Ash Wednesday and it's biblical foundations: the placing of ashes (or sometimes "dust") on the forehead was a means for biblical figures to show grief, sorrow, and repentance. This is often accompanied by the wearing of "sackcloth" or the tearing/rending of their garments while fasting. Here are just a few examples I could find from scripture.
Joshua 7:6 - Shortly after the God's victory over Jericho, the Israelites suffered a humiliating defeat at Ai due to their sin. Joshua and the Israelite elders confess and repent before God by tearing their clothes and sprinkling dust on their heads.
Esther 4 - After Esther's uncle Mordecai learned that the evil Haman had hatched a plot to kill all the Jews of Persia, "[Mordecai] tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly".
2 Samuel 13 - After being raped and then abandoned, Tamar tore her clothes and put ashes on her head.
Jeremiah 6 - After delivering the Word of the LORD that Israel was going to be destroyed by God's wrath, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages his people to "Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing…for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us."
Ezekiel 27 - Ezekiel delivers the Word of the LORD detailing the destruction of the city of Tyre. In wake of it's destruction their neighbors will put on sackcloth and "sprinkle dust on the their heads, and roll in ashes"
Luke 10 - Jesus pronouncing judgment on 2 nearby cities said that if Tyre would have witnessed His miracles, "they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes".
Lamentations 2 - After witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem, the survivors mourn with sackcloth and dust.
Daniel 9 - After being taken into Babylonian captivity, the prophet Daniel confesses his sin and the sin of all Israel before God. He writes, "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes."
Jonah 3 King of Nineveh hearing of God's wrath puts on sackcloth and sits in the dust.
Job 2 - After the death of his children and personally being inflicted with a terrible disease Job is found in sackcloth, sitting in ashes.
Job 42 - After finally meeting God face to face the humbled Job responds, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
Nehemiah 9:1 After hearing the priest Ezra read the Law for the first time in generations, the people who are overcome with grief repent before God with fasting, sackcloth, and placing dust on their heads.
Now I certainly don't believe or teach that the imposition of ashes itself grants you forgiveness or impresses God. In fact relying solely on an outward action when not accompanied by faith and repentance is criticized by God.
Isaiah 58:5 "Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?"
In a Christian context the ashes are not meant to impress God or anyone else. They are meant for you! They are meant to remind you of the stark reality that one day you will die and face the Judgment seat of Christ. Which is why when I place the ashes on your forehead you'll hear me quote Ecclesiastes, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return". We were created for the glory of God and called to walk in faith with Christ. If we have wandered (and we all wander), then Ash Wednesday is the day of fasting, prayer, and repentance just like Daniel, Joshua, Job…did.
I hope you will join us for our Ash Wednesday service at 6:30pm.