Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season prior to Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Vice President Joe Biden sparked curiosity when he appeared in public and on television with a smudge of ash on his forehead. One news anchor in the UK had no idea what it was. “What’s happened to his head?” asked Kay Burley on Sky News. “It looks like he’s walked into a door!” The co-host speculated that he had fallen on the ice while attending the Winter Olympics. (As if we needed more evidence that Britain is an utterly post-Christian secular culture.)
Biden is a practicing Catholic, and the ash was part of the Ash Wednesday mass he had attended earlier in the day. While usually associated with Roman Catholic expressions of Christianity, the season of Lent and the symbolic display of ash on the forehead has been gaining acceptance among Protestant and Evangelical Christians as well. My own church has gathered for a “Solemn Assembly” on the Sunday evening before Lent (it wouldn’t seem right to call it Ash Sunday). The service includes reflective readings from Scripture, extensive periods of silence, confession of sins, and receiving ash on the forehead in the form of a cross.
There is often criticism that such symbolism is “too Catholic;” it violates our non-liturgical sensibilities as evangelicals. But what we often fail to see is that ash is a profoundly ancient and biblical symbol, and it predates any schism in the church between Catholics and Protestants.
In Genesis 2, when God created the man he formed him from the dust of the ground. In fact the name Adam comes from the Hebrew word meaning earth or ground. And after Adam’s sin, and the entrance of death into creation, God says to him, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). From this biblical root comes the well-worn funeral prayer, “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”
Ashes or dust came to be symbolic of mortality and death. It represents our human frailty and reminds us that no power we possess can help us escape the destiny that awaits us. In the Old Testament ashes were used as a symbol of mourning and repentance. It was a visual, physical acknowledgment of grief over death, sin, and evil. Job repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). The king of Nineveh wore sackcloth and sat in ashes when he heard the message of Jonah (Jonah 3:6). And the ashes from animal sacrifices were part of the ritual for the purification of sins (Numbers 19:9; 17).
The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when the ashes of mourning would be replaced by “beautiful headdresses” and the “oil of gladness.” This passage, found in Isaiah 61, was quoted by Jesus at the very start of his public ministry. He entered a synagogue, opened the scroll, and read from this familiar text:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion-
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning…
After reading Jesus announced, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
The symbol of ashes on the forehead is a powerful reminder of our human weakness-both moral and physical. We are creatures of sin, prone to selfishness, greed, and all kinds of injustice. And the ash reminds us of our ultimate fate; we all live under the shadow of death and we cannot escape the grave.
But the ash, and the season of Lent in general, help us celebrate the glorious hope we have in Jesus Christ. The sins of the world have been atoned for though his death on the cross. And the grave has been overcome through his resurrection on the third day. Indeed the ashes of mourning have been replaced by the oil of gladness.
But until all is put to rights and all of creation is renewed by the Creator, it is still good to be reminded of our broken human condition. It is right for us to be reminded of our sin and be humbled by our dusty origins and certain destiny. And while some might misunderstand, mock, or malign Joe Biden for his public display of religion-I wonder how our politics and our world would be different if more in Washington were reminded of these things