Ash Wednesday, originally called dies cinerum (day of ashes) is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writing of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020).1
In the Old Testament, ashes were often used as a sign of grief or penance. After tragedy struck Job and he experienced great loss of property, family, and his health, he sat among the ashes and scraped himself with a piece of pottery. (Job 2:8) As the book of Job comes to an end, Job seeks forgiveness from God for his arrogance. Though he had not deserved the bad things that had happened to him, his attitude toward God soured. "Therefore," he says to God, "I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:6)
Why ashes? Ashes carry the symbolism of that which has been consumed, that which has met its final destination. When he sat on the ashes in grief, he was saying, "Life as I know it has ended." When he applies ashed to himself in repentance, he was saying to God, "Sin will be the end of me unless you redeem me, O God."
Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to live by focusing on our ending. Unless we are intentional about placing our lives in proper contexts, that we are mortal, that we are time bound, that we are finite creatures, we are likely to get our priorities all out of line. During an Ash Wednesday service, ashes are placed on the foreheads of participants in the form of a cross by a minister who usually says, "For dust you are and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19) This reminds worshippers of our mortality.
The context of those words should also be understood by the worshipper, too. They were spoken to Adam and Eve AFTER they disobeyed and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their mortality, it seems, came as a result of their sin. "For the wages of sin is death," says Romans 6:23a. Yet, the beauty of the Ash Wednesday service is that the ashes placed on foreheads are made in the form of a cross. This reminds the worshipper that Jesus laid down his life as a ransom for many. Suffering was no stranger to Jesus. He willingly accepted that cup on our behalf, to demonstrate his love for us. Thus, "the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus the Son." (Romans 6:23b)
As worshippers come for ashes on Ash Wednesday, we should come with repentant hearts. We should have the same attitude as Job: "Sin will be the end of me unless you redeem me, O God." In order for redemption to occur, there needs to be some humility on our part. Coming forward to get a smooty cross placed on your forehead takes a little humility. You know you look a bit silly walking around with a smooty cross there, maybe with a few sprinklings of smut on your nose. However, the goal is not to worry about what others think, but to concentrate on what God thinks. Surely, God is pleased when we come to Him in authentic, spirit-filled, praised based, worship, seeking forgiveness of our sins with an open heart and mind, listening for the nudgings of the Holy Spirit, being open as He points us in directions He wants us to go.