Although not commanded Biblically, the tradition of the imposition of ashes does go back centuries. The early church father Terullian in the third century AD said confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes (On Repentance, ch 9). His examples from scripture include the king of Ninevah sitting in ashes in repentance (Jonah 3:6), Job 42:6 as Job repents in dust and ashes, God Himself telling Adam sinful man will return to dust (Genesis 3:19).
I choose not to sit in ashes, thank you, but I have always appreciated the symbol of ash on the Wednesday so titled. Was there ever a better contrast between the utter sinfulness – lost-ness – of men and women over against the beauty and forgiveness of communion? In the one we recognize we are helpless, and in the other we recognize God’s perfect solution to that helplessness – the Cross of Christ. In His body and blood the ashes of our existence are wiped clean, and we are refreshed and renewed.
No one should feel they must wear ash; it is a tradition and not a requirement of any Christian. This Ash Wednesday, because of distancing, we will be administering ash before communion using, of all things, Qtips – disposing of them after each application. What a time in the life of the church! Our Elders have become so good at making near perfect crosses on foreheads or backs of hands, and now we resort to this expedient. Just another adaptation in this time of pandemic… and through it all the Lord reigns, the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, and we look forward to the day when the life of the church returns to normal. Remember normal?