It may seem strange that Jesus’ professional ministry on earth was formally initiated by a wild prophetic figure named John the Baptist preaching fire-and-brimstone in the desert and calling for repentance. He warned the gathering crowd to prepare their hearts to repent and to get ready for the One who would come after him. This coming Messiah was going to turn everything upside-down when He ushered in His Kingdom here on earth.
In the same way, it is a bit unusual to begin the journey through Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day set aside to reflect on our mortality and death. On Ash Wednesday, we recite the words, “From dust we came, and to dust we shall return,” and allow our pastor or priest to smear ashes on our forehead.
But this strange ritual makes sense when you trace its roots back to repentance. In ancient days, donning sackcloth and ashes was a clear symbol that you were either in mourning or asking for repentance—or both. For Jews, covering yourself in ash was an outward sign that you were in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy. It was the first step in preparing yourself for repentance, of correcting your wrong-doing and turning back toward God.
This Ash Wednesday, allow the ashes on your own body to be a symbol of your preparation for repentance. As John the Baptist invited his original hearers to repent, hear him calling out to you as well: “Repent, for Christ and His Kingdom are near.” Christ is near to you today too.