Last night my family ran through our schedule for today, which includes an Ash Wednesday service this evening. This morning as we were getting ready for our day, my six-year-old asked me "Do you put ashes on everyone?" I got this mental image of me walking down main street, smudging ashy crosses on the foreheads of everyone I passed. "Not everyone," I said, "just the people who come to the service."
The crosses we take up today are serious reminders of who we are and where we stand. We are sinners standing before the throne of a righteous, holy, merciful God. They are the ashes of repentance, of recognizing that the world is not right and it's our fault. They are the reminders of our need for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for mercy. When we take those crosses on our heads, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) becomes "WE have sinned and fall short." These ashes remind us of our need for a Savior. They remind us of the world's need for a Savior.
The ashes are shaped in a cross as a reminder that sin is not the final word. Our Savior has come, forgiveness is ours. When we repent, when we turn away from the old things and toward the One who makes all things new, we find mercy for our sin and new life we never could have imagined before. So, though this evening is a somber one, it also declares our hope and our joy.
My early morning conversation has had me thinking, though. The ashes of this Wednesday are not just for us. They are not just for the church members who show up tonight. They are not just for the church members who stay home tonight. They are not just for the church, they are for everyone.
As we take the ashes on ourselves today, we are declaring to the world that the world is not right and repentance is needed everywhere, by everyone. We take these ashes not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the world. So that everywhere we go today with cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, we are saying silently and boldly, "Repent and believe the Good News." And we are declaring that forgiveness has come, mercy is poured out for all who will believe. "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24)