Why do we offer Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
First, ashes announce to each of us that, apart from Christ, we are sinners before God. Since ancient times God’s people have used ashes as a sign of humble repentance (e.g., Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). The one who receives ashes on their forehead confess that they are a sinner, in desperate need of God’s rescue. The ashes reveal that without Christ you are spiritually dead. The ashes remind you of your need for God to turn you back to Himself. The ashes serve as a tangible sign of our failure to love God as much as He loves us.
Ashes also remind us of our mortality before God: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Ashes remind us that without Christ Jesus we have a significant death problem in our future. No human being can escape death, or avoid it. So, the ashes force us to remember that we are mortal and that God alone has the solution for our death problem.
Jesus Christ is the only solution for our death problem, and the ashes tell us this good news. The ashes are given in the shape of the Cross. So we remember that our Lord Jesus took on the fullness of our humanity and became sin for us. He was this crucified on a cross, for you and me. He endured the fullness of God’s wrath on your behalf. Then Jesus conquered death through His resurrection, which was for you. He has taken the ashes of our past and created us anew, giving us new life. So our sin problem and our death problem are taken care of. The power of death has been destroyed through Christ. Therefore, the cross-shaped ashes on your forehead proclaim the good news that sin and death have been conquered through the cross of Christ.