God Pours Ashes on My Head

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A life of repentance embraces the ashes placed on our own foreheads and the coals we feel heaped upon our heads, for these ashes and coals bid us to join in the refreshment and restoration that comes on the road of repentance.

As we once again approach [enter into] the Lenten season, it is good to think about why this season begins by changing to purple paraments and brings you to smear ashes on your forehead. It has always seemed to me to be a bit shabby of the Apostle Paul to encourage pouring coals on someone’s head even if that person has done me harm (Romans 12:20). Ashes do not seem much different from the coals which gave them their existence. At a minimum, coals and ashes are grimy and could get in your eyes. And if they are hot, they hurt, hurt terribly. Worse yet, Paul is quoting the wisdom of the writer of Proverbs (25:22).

Calling wrongdoers to repentance is indeed our task. But doing it for the sake of seeing them shamed and condemned by the ashes on their head tempts us to find too much pleasure in accomplishing putting the “other” in line. Yet, that is not the entirety of the apostle’s point, and it is not our calling when we have opportunity to help others come to repentance. Ashes served as sign of repentance at key points in Scripture. Job ends his encounter with the Lord by repentance “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Jonah’s call for repentance brought the king of Nineveh to cover himself with dust or ashes (Jonah 3:6). Jesus recognized sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance (Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13). Repentance means turning or being turned around (“shuv” in the Hebrew) or “having your way of thinking set in the opposite direction.” Repentance means “having your mind baptized” (“metanoia” in Greek). Coals or ashes do just that. Even if we receive the ashes out of routine habit on Ash Wednesday, they call us again to turn back to our Lord, and remind us of our mortality, of the coming dissolution of our mortal bodies into dust and ashes, anticipating the immortal body promised in 1 Corinthians 15.

This call to repentance echoes God’s call in Eden: “Adam, where are you?” Our call to repentance deconstructs our identity as sinners, so our identity as God’s children defines who we are. In a most extreme case, that of incest in the Corinthian congregation, Paul advised “turning the man over to Satan,” but not so he can roast in Hell forever. Paul’s purpose and hope in urging this way of dealing with him intends “that his sinful identity may be destroyed and his identity in the Spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:5). Even short of excommunication, helping those around us find the ashes for their and our own heads is pursuing the same goal of saving the people of the Holy Spirit on the day Jesus returns.

Of course, repentance hurts. Mortification of the flesh is what we used to call it, and it means death to an identity which has placed us east of Eden, in the desert of our own desires. Unfortunately, it is increasingly an honest cry in North America today when we hear, “I wish I were dead.” And followers of Jesus can say to those outside the faith, “Do we have a deal for you! Come to the font!” In the waters of baptism and daily repentance our old identity as sinners drowns and is buried in Christ’s tomb. In the waters of baptism and daily repentance begins a life, as Martin Luther taught, in which “the old Adam in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance and, on the other hand, that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism, Question 4 on Baptism). There we receive a new family, a new Father, a new self as a reborn creature of God.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, live if you can, but die you must,” is the ditty which takes off from our Lenten act of repentance. On Ash Wednesday we truly do remember that sooner or later our mortal bodies will be laid in the tomb. The ashes also take us back to the water which drowned us as sinners, the water that ushered us into the resurrected life of Christ and restores our righteousness, reconciling us with God. Ashes are dead wood, consumed kindling. Sinners consumed by the fiery wrath of God are also dead wood, the raw material from which our risen Lord constructs His resurrected people.

Sinners consumed by the fiery wrath of God are also dead wood, the raw material from which our risen Lord constructs His resurrected people.

Paul is pointing out in Romans 12 that not just our words of rebuke can call others to healing and restoring repentance. Our exhibiting the mind of Christ, the attitude of our Savior, in mild reactions to offense, meeting harm with healing, meeting blows with bouquets, meeting criticism with cordiality, by contrast demonstrates how shameful and shabby actions are which do not embody the peace of Eden. Without a doubt, sometimes sins against others or even against ourselves require words of reproof and sharp admonition. But believers dare never forget how when they act in this manner, they stand in danger of accepting the Devil’s deceitful handbook rule that putting someone else down raises me up. In fact, putting someone else down can trap me in a works-righteous doctrine of exercising control over my own reputation, or my own feelings about myself. Exalting self at the expense of others always costs the vengeful more than the original offense.

When others strike out against us or simply trip and fall on us, Paul admonishes us to exchange such blows with blessings. These blessings include sharing the joy of repentance and its liberation from being turned in on ourselves, to truly human living. It is the Holy Spirit’s transformation of our way of thinking into seeing life with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2: 5).

Calling others to repentance is a rescue mission, fraught with danger to be sure, but the calling and challenge are part of this mission on which Jesus in John 20 sent His Church. I have experienced the damaging of a friendship when I told a friend who had helped me much and with whom I had spent many a profitable hour that he dare not go before his Maker with a mutual acquaintance on his conscience. I have also reaped thanks for a warning that a certain path was leading in damaging direction.

Instances where old friends have no one else with the courage to say the word abound. For example, the South African author Alan Paton’s novel Too Late the Phalarope records the regret of the aunt of an Afrikaans policeman, who failed to sing a song of warning, to chirp a call to repentance, and prevent her nephew from bringing disaster upon himself and his family. The opportunities to serve as a phalarope in the lives of those around us do not come often. But one lone song-bird may be the only one who can stop a life headed for the brink and call it back to the Lord.

Other calls to repentance may come through chance encounters with people we hardly know. These are instances where strangers chance across our path with offensive words and actions which can be met with a gentle, “In our family we never learned to say (or do) such things.” When people are meandering or rushing toward a cliff of destruction, a word or gesture reflecting a contrasting way of life can mean the difference between eternal life and death.

A life of repentance embraces the ashes placed on our own foreheads and the coals we feel heaped upon our heads, for these ashes and coals bid us to join in the refreshment and restoration that comes on the road of repentance. This road runs through our own baptismal water, where our old identity got trapped in Christ’s tomb and our new creature emerged into true human life. The road of repentance is Christ’s path.

The nineteenth-century member of the British Parliament and colonial official Robert Grant captured the connection between Jesus’s helpless infant years, His life of want and tears, His days of sore distress, His cross, nail, thorn, piercing spear, and torturing scorn, and the believer traveling Christ’s path in the dust of repentance in his hymn “Savior, When in Dust to Thee.” That is the road Ash Wednesday, as every day which begins with a repentant spirit, sets us on. It is a road that takes us to the cross and ends by coming out of the Lord’s empty tomb.