What does a smudge of ashes mean?

AshesBy the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
Genesis 3:19 (NIV)

I helpfully warned a co-worker they had dirt on their forehead. I felt embarrassed when they explained that they’d gotten the ashes, not dirt, at church (and on a weekday!). What?

My childhood church tradition didn’t focus on the Lenten journey and I apparently didn’t have Catholic friends. I was married with kids before I became aware that the 40 days before Easter are ‘a thing’ and that some people give up chocolate or caffeine (which is called fasting). I still had so many questions. Can you relate?

Why ashes?
Why 40 days?
Why do people fast?
What does Mardi Gras’ Fat Tuesday have to do with Lent?

Let’s begin with ashes. Genesis 3:19 records one of the consequences for Adam and Eve doubting God’s good intentions, generosity, and authority. Rather than trusting that God protected them from knowing evil, they fell for the serpent’s trick and suspected God of holding something back. Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil meant they didn’t trust God to make the best decisions for them. The consequence was mortality. 

They usurped God’s authority over them. Sound familiar?

The other tree at the center of the Garden was the Tree of Life. They freely enjoyed its fruit which provided immortal life – life without corruption and decay. In the Garden humans didn’t die. But in loving kindness, God couldn’t let them remain in their “knowing and experiencing evil” predicament eternally. He expelled them from the Garden in order to prevent them from eating Tree of Life fruit and secured the Garden gates (Gen 3:22-24).

God describes mortality as returning to dust. God shaped humans from the dust of the ground and to dust we will return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In biblical times, wearing ashes displayed mourning, repentance, and humility.

Ashes represent our humble posture before the Eternal Almighty God.

As if to say “Who am I to question you?” Abraham respectfully called himself “nothing but dust and ashes” as he boldly negotiated with God to save the lives of righteous Sodomites. (Gen 18:27)

Job challenges God to explain his unjust suffering in view of his outstandingly upright life. After God issues a four chapter response beginning with “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:2) Job humbly acknowledges God’s power and authority saying “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

As if to say “Only you have the power!” Jeremiah humbly summoned God to save a besieged Jerusalem with instructions to “put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; and mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son.” (Jer 6:26)

Peter quotes Proverbs 3:34 in advising church leaders.

“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand,
that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Pet 5:6)

Who am I but an imperfect mortal human receiving the forgiving mercy of the Infinite, Almighty Creator of the Universe? With honor and respect I bow down before my great God in answering “I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

Receiving ashes puts my heart in a posture of repentance and humility.

#SeedsofScripture #AshWednesday #Lentenseason #ashestoashes #humbleheart #humility #repentance #40days


  1. J.D. Wininger on February 23, 2023 at 7:26 AM

    While I believe that baptism is the only public expression of my belief and trust in God needed (and not for salvation, but as a public expression of faith), that doesn’t mean that I can’t respect those who choose to exercise other ordinances or expressions of their faith. I think, for me, what is more important is (as you point out) the humility with which we share that public expression. If it’s meant to be more outward than inward, then I question its value. Great explanation and application Ms. Cathy. Thank you. I’d seen it, but never understood it until a Catholic friend explained it to me. Never accepted it until I saw someone live out its meaning in their life.

    • CathyChung on February 26, 2023 at 4:58 PM

      It’s a matter of the heart – a circumcised heart. I never did it until I understood it and sat in repentance prior to receiving.

  2. Sylvia Gordon on February 23, 2023 at 9:23 PM

    Thank you Cathy for that very clear explanation .

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