In a couple of days, many pastors and priests will stand at the altar holding up a grey thumb, like hitchhikers waiting for Jesus to give them a ride.

It’s Ash Wednesday, A sea of smudged foreheads. Kids smearing black all over themselves, mom and dad, and the back of the pew.

All in all, it’s the dirtiest day in the church year.

Many aren’t sold on the idea of putting ashes on everyone’s heads. I get that. It is, after all, the stuff of the grave, even if imposed as a cross. Ashes to ashes, skins and bones and blood to dust.

But perhaps bringing a red heifer to church might add a fresh, gospel perspective.


In the Old Testament, funeral home directors would be in a constant state of uncleanness. Back then, any contact with a corpse rendered you ritually dirty. That meant no going to church, no approaching the Lord’s altar until God gave you a bath, until he made you clean and holy again.

So he came up with a solution. A kind of Israelite sacrament: holy ashes.

A priest slaughtered a red heifer, sprinkled its blood toward the Lord’s altar, and burned its body, along with cedar, hyssop, and scarlet. This strange gray cocktail was kept in ready supply. You can read about it all in Numbers 19.

When a person had touched death, the concoction was mixed with water and sprinkled on them.

The ashes of a heifer preached the gospel of Christ’s sacrifice to come.

God lit within these ashes the fire of a promise: whoever they touched, that person became clean. They could step into the Lord’s sanctuary. Stand before his altar. Worship him as those whose bodies had been purified.

This was one of the Father’s many ways of telling the pre-story of his Son. Before Christ was born, God gave his people sacrifices and rituals that bore within them a story: the narrative of what Jesus would do to fulfill all things.

They were imperfect portrayals of the sacrifice to come. Black and white pictures awaiting the color only the Messiah could fill in.

Hebrews says, “If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ…cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God,” (9:14).

How much more, indeed.

If heifer ashes cleansed the body, how much more will Christ’s blood cleanse you inside and out?

The ashes of a red heifer foreshadowed the red blood of the Lamb of God.

If those ashes enabled you to stand before the Lord’s altar pure and undefiled, how much morewill Christ’s blood enable you to enter the Holy of Holies itself?

The ashes of a heifer preached the gospel of Christ’s sacrifice to come. The purification they provided for the body pointed to the complete purification the cross would provide for our bodies and souls made unclean by sin and death.


This Wednesday, as we gather for the service of ashes, bring the memory of that heifer to church.

Remember that you are ashes, to be sure, but remember too that God once provided ashes full of the fire of grace. The promise of something better to come. The promise of blood that would, once for all, bury death in its own grave.

The ashes of a red heifer foreshadowed the red blood of the Lamb of God.

It turns out ashes do have some gospel attached to them. They not only remind us of our own mortality; they point us back to the time when ashes were God’s means of reminding his people that he and he alone had the power over death.

Even in ashes there’s the spark of resurrection.

Read this article, "My Favorite Dirty Word in Church," to learn more about how we still feel unclean. And how Christ works to transfer that uncleanness from us to himself.

My new book, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, will be available October, 2017. You can read more about it and pre-order your copy at Amazon. Thank you!