The Ash Cross of Ash Wednesday

By Justin Rossow

Even as a kid I loved the quiet, dark, and solemn mood of the Ash Wednesday service. And I’ve always loved receiving the sign of the cross in ashes on my forehead.

Of course, ashes are a sign of my own mortality. The ash cross of Ash Wednesday is usually applied with words from Genesis 3:19, part of the curse that sin brought into the world: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Putting ashes on your head is an ancient sign of sorrow, remorse, and repentance. This outward sign of inner self-abasement was often accompanied by tearing your clothes, or wearing rough sackcloth, and abstaining from food and drink. Deep, personal, mortal sorrow over sin belongs to the sign of ashes.

But the Ash Wednesday ashes are also mixed with a little olive oil (to help them stick—too little, and you’ve got fine black powder cascading down the bridge of your parishioners’ noses and onto their suits and blouses; too much, and you have a drippy sludge that clots and smears). To be anointed with oil in the Bible is a sign of joy, a sign of being chosen, a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

What’s more, Ash Wednesday ashes are applied in the sign of the cross; an instrument of torture, yes, but also the means by which the grave was defeated once for all and death itself was put to death. You receive the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart when you are anointed with water in Holy Baptism, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified. You receive the sign of the cross along with the Name of the Triune God at the Invocation and at the Benediction, bookending your worship. When you confess your sins in sorrow and self-abasement, and the pastor speaks Absolution, forgiveness, restoration, promise, renewal—of course you receive the sign of the cross then! Many followers of Jesus around the world begin and end their day with the sign of the cross.

That sign of death and resurrection is placed on your human body, a body that is both destined to die and destined to rise again. (Well, Scripturally speaking, we know there will be some left alive who will pass from Creation to New Creation without going through the portal of death, but statistically speaking, you’re going to have to die before you live forever.)

A small + marking in the Apostles’ Creed in the front of my hymnal indicates that I am invited to make a sign of the cross over myself at the words “… + and the life everlasting. Amen.” But I had a professor back at seminary who taught about the full, literal Gospel: the truth that the Christian hope is not merely to die and go to heaven (which is good, as far as it goes), but instead, the full Christian hope and promise of both Old and New Testaments is that Jesus will come again and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. So he always makes the sign of the cross one phrase early: where you say, “I believe … + in the resurrection of the dead…” Your hope is not merely to escape your body for a better spiritual existence in heaven. Your body matters. And your body is going to rise.

Which is one reason I love the ash cross of Ash Wednesday: it marks your human body with a promise of resurrection. It’s no wonder we use the sign of the cross at the mini-death and mini-resurrection of baptism. And it’s no wonder we use the sign of the cross as we commit human bodies to their final resting place, to await the resurrection of the dead.

The words spoken at the graveside (right after the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” part) are some of the most beautiful in all of our liturgy books:

May God the Father, who created this body,
May God the + Son, who by his blood redeemed this body;
May God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism
sanctified this body to be his temple,
keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen.

That. That’s what we are doing with the ash cross on Ash Wednesday. We are rehearsing our own funerals. We are marking our bodies with the sign of mortality and immortality. We are joining ourselves to Jesus’ death, already now, so that the resurrection of Jesus might reign in our mortal bodies, already now. We mix the symbols of sorrow and gladness and wear them as a sign that we belong to the one who rules over life and death.

As Paul puts it in his great resurrection chapter: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]” (1 Corinthians 15:49). That’s what the ash cross of Ash Wednesday is all about.

And that’s why I always have such a difficult time washing it off. It almost seems sacrilegious to remove that sign of repentance and joy. So I have taken to using even the removal of the ash cross as a remembrance of my own baptism, a sign, as Peter says, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21, ESV).

So I started using the following brief Rite of Ash Removal after Ash Wednesday service. I just made it up, and you are welcome to improve it or personalize it in any way you see fit. I think for me, it grew out of a funeral sermon I gave for a friend of mine; I like to preach the bodily resurrection of the dead when we plant Christian brothers and sisters in the ground and await the Lord of the Harvest.

But mostly, it just gives me one more chance to remember the meaning of the ash cross of Ash Wednesday before going on with the rest of my busy week. That reminder of mortality and immortality, of death and resurrection, helps get me through this temporal Lent and points me to eternal Easter.

The Rite of Ash Removal

In the name of the Father,
and of the + Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus loves my body.
Jesus died for my body.
My body is going to rise.

Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord. Amen.

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A brief description of Ash Wednesday from a much younger Justin Rossow.

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