Why I’m Excited to Lead My First Ash Wednesday Service in 40 Years


I’m going to lead an Ash Wednesday service tomorrow.

I was raised by devoted Roman Catholic parents who sent me to a Catholic elementary school, where every Ash Wednesday, during mass we would kneel at the communion rail and the priest would dip his thumb into a plate of ashes, dab them onto our foreheads in the shape of a cross and say,

“Remember man that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

The only thing I understood about Ash Wednesday then was that it was the beginning of Lent. And possibly that the ashes meant that someday I was going to die.

I guess that’s not a bad reminder in itself; if more people considered that this life isn’t going to last forever, they might live differently, although as a kid I didn’t think much about it. It was just kind of fun having ashes on your forehead for the rest of the day.

In fact, no one ever explained the real significance of the phrase the priest said. And if they had, I don’t know if I would have found it very encouraging.

Since Jesus saved me in the early 70’s I haven’t gone to an Ash Wednesday service. Never led one as a pastor. The Bible doesn’t mention Ash Wednesday. The Catholic church instituted it in 325 A.D. Anglicans and some Protestants celebrate it, but it’s not required in Scripture. Though the Old Testament mentions people repenting in ashes, Jesus was more concerned about issues of the heart. In fact in Matthew 6 he said, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (MT 6:16-18).

Anyway, I have never led an Ash Wednesday service as a pastor. But recently a local personal care facility called our church, saying many of the residents requested an Ash Wednesday service and asked if a pastor could lead the service. I agreed to do it, because it will give me a chance to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

The “dust to dust” phrase is not good news, but it points out our need for the good news.

“Dust to dust” was actually part of the curse God placed upon Adam and the human race when he sinned in the garden of Eden. The consequences of Adam’s sin included:

By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” GE 3:17-19

If we put the “dust to dust” phrase in context, it’s not simply a reminder that someday we are going to die. It’s a reminder that Adam’s sin brought a horrible curse upon mankind. Adam was our representative, and whatever he did counted for us as well. So when he sinned, the whole human race was cursed. But not only that, each one of us has sinned as well.

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” RO 3.10-12

So we are all under the curse of death. Happy thought for Ash Wednesday!

But Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, which looks forward to Good Friday and Easter. Here’s where the good news comes in. This is what I’m excited to tell the residents at the personal care facility.

First of all, on Good Friday we remember what Jesus did on the cross. When Jesus hung on the cross, he took the curse of God that Adam’s sin and our sins have merited for us. God credited all my sins and all your sins to Jesus! Jesus took every single sin you and I have ever committed upon himself, as if he had personally committed them. He didn’t have to do that. Jesus was born without sin and he never once sinned in his entire life. He did not deserve the judgment of God upon sin. But he loved us so much he was willing to take the curse of God in our place! God poured out his wrath on Jesus for my sins and your sins.


Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— GA 3.13

On the cross, Jesus was cursed by God – he took the curse that the ashes of Ash Wednesday represent. Jesus paid the full price for our sins! Jesus died on that cross. He gave his life. Then his dead body was laid in a tomb.

But on the third day, Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead! He rose physically. Death couldn’t hold him because he had broken God’s curse and satisfied God’s holy justice! And the Bible says that when we believe in Jesus, God gives us eternal life. Not a temporary life like this life, but ETERNAL, UNENDING LIFE IN JESUS CHRIST. In Jesus, we will never die. Our bodies may die, but we will be with Jesus forever. And we will not be forever with Jesus as spirits; the Bible says that believers in Jesus will someday rise from the dead and have new bodies that will never die.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 1 CO 15.20-22

When we believe in Christ, God places us “in Christ.” We are one with Christ. His resurrection becomes our resurrection. We will all “be made alive.” We will all rise from the dead. And we will have new bodies:

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 1 CO 15.42-44

The bodies we have now are like seeds. When we die, our bodies are like seeds sown in the ground. But someday, when Jesus comes back we will come forth with new bodies. Glorious bodies. Imperishable bodies that will never die.

If we believe in Jesus, when he returns we will be raised with NEW, GLORIOUS BODIES, so beautiful and strong and wonderful, we can’t imagine them.

Imagine if we had never seen a tree in our lives and all we had ever seen was an acorn. We couldn’t imagine what that tree would be like someday. These bodies we have now are like that acorn. Ash Wednesday reminds us that someday we’ll return to the ground. We’ll be ashes. But if we believe in Jesus, when he returns we will be raised with NEW, GLORIOUS BODIES, so beautiful and strong and wonderful, we can’t imagine them.

This is why I’m excited to lead the Ash Wednesday service. I won’t be anointing anyone with ashes, though a local church will be there to do so for any of the residents who would desire them. I’m excited to remind everyone who attends that the ashes remind us that though sin brought the curse of death into the world, on Good Friday Jesus took our curse for us and paid for all our sins on the cross. Then on Easter Jesus rose from the dead, so that if we believe in him, we too will someday we will rise from the dead.

Yes, remember that we are dust and that someday we will return to dust. But don’t forget if we believe in Jesus Christ, someday we will rise up from the dust with new heavenly bodies that will never die!

Mark Altrogge

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

8 comments

  • Wonderful, timely article – I shall be attending my first Ash Wednesday service ever tomorrow! I was born again in the early 70s too and the church my wife and I have attended since this Christmas is a return for us to the Anglican Church (our local parish church and very happening!) after forty years in different protestant churches. Sounds like Ash Wednesday is a good point of focus for considering the redeeming work of Jesus.

  • Loved the explanation from a biblical perspective. Actually an awesome intro for those folks to hear the gospel. In threatening. But, like everything else that matters, it points to the cross. Well done v

  • I love this! Thank you for the article, Mark! I got my ashes early this morning, which opened up great conversations with many. May the outward expression of inward realities always open the door to share this great salvation! Such a rich and meaningful tradition and the meaning has only been deepened my Your excellent words.

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