The idea of Ash Wednesday is to mark a period–a period of mourning and chastening, discipline and devotion–of 40 days before Easter. The significance of the 40 days goes without saying. But why ashes?
The practice, in the Christian tradition, was to commemerate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, by decorating the church with palm leaves (or whatever leaves were available), which would then be gathered up and burned, the ashes being saved for the following year, when Ash Wednesday would arrive and the faithful would gather at the church to have their foreheads marked by the priest with those same ashes. Why those ashes? Because that is what the palm leaves and shouts and hallelujahs that greeted the Christ quickly turned to. The story we all know, made simple: Jesus pointed us to a kingdom within and beyond and out of this world, and was crucified for it, and those who cheered Him mere days before let it happen, so angered and confused and frightened were they at His refusal to them what they thought they wanted. And so it is with us today: our exultations and victories and parades, so regularly, like clockwork, turn to ashes when put to the test. We do not get what we want, and the accomplishments of the world turn out to mean something other for us than we had thought. Plans and praise turn to ashes, because they were our plans, not His, and it was with expectations, not gratefulness, with which we praised Him. So mark us with our own ashes, that they may be made beautiful, when the right time (His time) comes.
I don’t know how the people–the few, maybe, who had been present turning Jesus’s entry into the city, and again had been present when Pilate presented Him to the crowd, and had cursed the Christ out of doubt and fear and frustration–felt when they saw that they had been wrong, when the sin of their words and so much more pressed down on them in the light of the risen Lord. No doubt they felt as I kind of hope, in my braver and more pious moment, that I will feel someday, which is also how Job felt, in the end: “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Other translations have Job yielding himself, despising himself, lowering himself. I’m a prideful person, like everyone else, and no spiritual masochist; Most of the time I’d prefer to avoid being disciplined and chastened, if I can. Yet, having gone through a few valleys in my time (all of which are mere shadows of the valley of death which I know awaits my loved ones and I), I cannot deny what a good thing it is, at the point of crisis or realization, to go down, to dig oneself down into the earth and ashes, “to bow and to bend” as the Shaker hymn puts it–knowing that everything about you worth being raised will be brought back up to the light again, and like a seed in springtime grow strong.