This day is known as Ash Wednesday and signals the beginning of the 40 days of Lent, a time when believers pray, do penance, mortify the flesh, repent of their sins, give alms, and deny themselves as a preparation for Easter, when as Christians enter into the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I would like to focus on the use of ashes. From your reading of the Old Testament, you will have come across references to ashes. Often, it is together with sackcloth. These two symbols were used on different occasions to show debasement, mourning or repentance.
For example, people who wanted to show a repentant heart would wear sackcloth while sitting in ashes and throwing ashes over their heads.
As you can imagine, sackcloth was an uncomfortable material, usually made from goat’s hair, making it uncomfortable to wear as it would rub and itch. The ashes were a sign of desolation and ruin.
It was the custom when someone died to put on sackcloth in order to show heartfelt sorrow for the loss of that person. There is the example in the second Book of Samuel when David said to Joab and all the troops who were with him, “Tear your garments, put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner.”
Jacob also demonstrated his grief by wearing sackcloth when he thought his son, Joseph had been killed. (Genesis 37: 34.) In these cases of mourning for the dead there is mention only of sackcloth and not of ashes.
Ashes and sackcloth were used in times of national disaster or repenting from sin.
Recall Mordecai in the Book of Ester (4:1) “Mordecai tore his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes. Then he went through the city, wailing loud and bitterly, until he arrived at the Chancellery.”
This was Mordecai’s reaction to King Xerxes giving the wicked Haman authority to destroy the Jews. Mordecai was not the only one who grieved.
“And in every province, no sooner had the royal edict been read than among the Jews there was great mourning, fasting, weeping and wailing, and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.” (Ester 4: 3.)
Sackcloth and ashes in the Old Testament are closely linked when there was to be a public act of repentance and humility before God. The Book of Jonah expresses this well. Jonah declared to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them for their wickedness.
“Only 40 days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed. And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least. The news reached the king of Nineveh, who rose and from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes. (Jonah 3: 4 – 7) When God saw the genuine change – a humble change of heart represented by the sackcloth and ashes, it caused God to relent and not bring about His plan to inflict disaster, which he had threatened on Nineveh. (Jonah 3:10.)
The use of sackcloth and ashes were an outward sign of one’s inward state. Such a symbol made one’s change of heart visible and demonstrated the sincerity of one’s grief or repentance.
It was not the act of putting on sackcloth and ashes itself that moved God to intervene, but the humility (debasement) that such an action demonstrated. Just open your Bibles at 1 Samuel 16; 7 to understand this “Yahweh looks at the heart”. God’s forgiveness in response to genuine repentance is celebrated by David’s words: “You removed my sackcloth and cloth me with joy.” Psalm 30: 11
When a member of the Church is marked with the ashes on the forehead the priest says, “remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return.” While this is recalling our origins and what happens at our death it is a stark reminder that God is our creator and we should acknowledge this.
In the Cook Islands, God is acknowledged in all public functions and social occasions, which I find admirable. In the spirit of what I have written on debasing ourselves and showing humility before God, I recommend we recall why we show this respect for God in our public life and renew our participation in these activities genuinely and wholeheartedly.
And while I do not consider myself in the role of Jonah at the moment and want to call the nation to public repentance, I do think there are issues happening in our community to where we should be listening to the voice of modern day “prophets”.
Ashes were used in time of national disaster.
Today in this context we might think of how we use and look after the environment. Constantly, “prophets” are reminding us of the harm done to our environment when we use the likes of plastic bags. Too many things we do today are harmful for the future. Just what are we leaving for our grandchildren?
Even if just once, I put on sackcloth and threw ashes over myself for carelessly using a plastic bag and discarding it where it ended up in the water ways beginning its journey to the ocean. I would be slow to do it a second time if I showed some public remorse!
Other examples for consideration could be: forgiving those who have wronged us, sharing what we have with those less fortunate, treating our workers, especially foreign workers, fairly and with respect, being honest in all our dealings with others, driving vehicles responsibly and being loving and caring in our own homes.
God wants to see our hearts changed and converted for the better. The 40 days of Lent, which is the time for repentance and the putting on of “sackcloth and ashes”, even if only symbolically, is an opportune time, in all aspects of our lives to return wholeheartedly to the Lord, as did the citizens of Nineveh in the time of Jonah.
Bishop Paul Donoghue,