There is no substitute for ashes. Not because we cannot come up with something to replace them but because ashes and repentance are the only fit response of a people confronted with all that is wrong around them and in them. So we come on the Wednesday called Ash Wednesday, to start a season of repentance in which we set aside the Alleluia of Easter's joy for a time and put on the solemn purple of mourning over our sin. Ash Wednesday is black with sin and death that no one can wash away except the Lord. In the midst of this awful darkness, a cross is shaped by the thumb of the minister (substituting for the hand of God). In the darkness of sin and in the shadow of death, there is hope. Christ came to wear the mark of our sin and to suffer in our place upon the cross and to die the death that was ours to die. He did this for us that hope may be planted among us -- hope of repentance created by the Spirit, of the forgiveness of our sins by the blood of Christ, of lives rescued from the devil's domain for God alone, and of graves that must cough up the dead because Christ is raised.
No, you do not have to receive the ashes. It is, as so many love to remind us, adiaphora -- something which cannot be commanded because no Word of God demands it. But it is a noble custom lived out in the Church through the ages. In time of plague and pandemic, we are reminded even more of how fragile life is, of the damage done to God's noble creation by sin's brutal destruction, and of the despair of a people who know the pain but cannot find the cure. In time of plague and pandemic, we are drawn even more to Him who has the remedy -- the One who wore our fragile flesh precisely so that He might die and who suffered as the Innocent for the guilty and who died for the sins of the whole world and for yours and mine. Ashes are never safe just as confession is never easy nor pleasing. But hidden in the
ashes is the hope of Christ as they are marked upon us in the shape of a cross. And hidden in confession is the hope of Christ as forgiveness seals the conversation and holds our sins in prison so that we prisoners may be set free.
Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.