Why ashes? Because we all fall down.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
The end to a familiar sing-song nursery rhyme as we join our hands together and ring around the rosie. With some urban legends attributing its origins to the time of the bubonic plague, it is like many inherited fairytales much darker than our games make it. But why ashes?
Image courtesy of the US Navy
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.*
Because we all fall down. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and even those things which I now wish to do I do not do (Romans 7:15,19). It is the reality since the garden, a truth that God speaks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19. We were taken from the ground, and to the ground we will return. Who shall save us from this body of death? Christ, and He does it through a cross. Ashes, signs of mourning and repentance in the Old Testament when combined with sackcloth, traded in for beauty with the promise of Christ (Isaiah 61:3).
For those who don’t follow the traditional liturgical calendar, you may not know it’s Lent – and for those of you who do know it’s Lent, it may seem a harmless but ultimately silly tradition the old “high church” folks do. Believe me: I’ve heard worse, and to be perfectly fair to all those who look askance, last Wednesday I did something extravagantly silly and not at all stylish. I wore black soot on my forehead. If you ask my wife, doing this, even for a few hours one day per year, is unheard of – I’m far too vain, worrying about my hair and clothes too much, to intentionally look unkempt.
But I did. And I did it for a reason. As mentioned, ashes were signs of mourning and repentance in the Old Testament used by David, Tamar, Job, Jeremiah, Daniel, Esther, the people of Nineveh, and mentioned even by Jesus in Matthew 11:21 (parallel found in Luke 10:13). The imposition of ashes, however, is more than that, and it points forward to the whole of Lent and ultimately what is at the end – Easter!
I’ll tell what I mean: when God casts Adam and Eve from the Garden in Genesis 3, He doesn’t say it is a punishment for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s something we read into the text. Rather, after telling Adam and Eve how they are cursed after eating, He concludes:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. Genesis 3:22-23
A few notes here:
- God trails off and does not complete His thought verbally in verse 22
- God notes that the man has attained the knowledge of good and evil, but he has already consigned Adam to return to dust
- God sends Adam out to play god, as he was trying to do with the fruit: as God formed Adam from the ground, Adam will now labor to form something from the ground
- God’s explicit reason for casting Adam and Eve from Paradise is to prevent Adam “reach[ing] out his hand and tak[ing] also of the tree of life and eat[ing], and liv[ing] forever”
Every single one of these thoughts deserves much Scripture and reflection, but it’s the last one I want to dial in, zoom for a close up inspection. At no point prior to this in the Genesis narrative was the tree of life forbidden to Adam. In fact, God explicitly tells Adam that he may eat of “every tree” in the garden (which would include the tree of life) with the known exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:9,16-17
God does not expel man from the Garden as punishment, but as prevention. It’s proactive, not reactive. It’s the Great Physician offering preventative care rather than catastrophic care. God is preventing Adam from living forever – forever in his sin, forever in the curse, forever separated from what was very good, forever toiling with the ground from which he was taken to yield nothing, a cursed ground being worked by a cursed image of God to bring forth curses. God saw all that Adam had made and said “it is not good,” and so wills something better for him – and ultimately for us.
We are blessed to die. It’s a consequence because of our own action, but had God not stepped in, we would in fact be cursed to live a cursed life. What amazing thing is it that God works all things for good according to His own purpose (Romans 8:28), even in such a way that seems foolish to man (1 Corinthians 1:23), that is death: in Christ crucified, in His death, we in fact are greatly blessed. The Second Adam, the new man, who dies, in fact dies our death, and gives us an amazing blessing. More theologians than I, and early church fathers long before even them, have made this connection that the tree of life which we cannot eat in our sin is brought out of the garden to us: the tree of life is the cross, the fruit the body and blood of Christ, given for us (see the insitution of the Lord’s Supper). As all who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death (Romans 6:3), we share in his resurrection as well.
Which brings me back to Ash Wednesday and Lent. Hebrew and English are not linguistically related. But they have a shocking parallel. In Genesis 30, Leah’s servant Zilpah bears a son for Jacob. Leah is so overcome with joy to have another son, that her husband might love her for providing him, that she names the baby Asher. The Hebrew name Asher means “blessed” or “happy.” Likewise, the one who receives the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is referred to as an “asher.” The one who is being told they will return to the dust are those being blessed, being made happy.
Ashes and repentance, blessing and returning to God. This is what Ash Wednesday and Lent are. It’s why I keep them. It’s this constant mind-blowing reminder to me that what we view as evil, what we even intend for evil, God works for an amazing good. These six weeks are times of abstention, repentance, to give up and give over to God instead. I turn to God, who died upon a Cross for me, and find in His death my amazing blessing. As we are knit into Christ as one body, we are knit into a body that has suffered death and rose again. We are being made like Him.
*Latin for the traditional Ash Wednesday imposition “Remember, [O Man], ‘dust you are, and to dust you shall return'” with reference to Genesis 3:19