Many years ago, as we approached Ash Wednesday, someone commented to a member about the day, "is that where you go to church and get that sh*t smeared on your forehead?" It is truly sad that this is the sum total of the person-in-question's knowledge of what this day is. Seems to me that if we had a better collective understanding of the day itself, it would go a long way toward helping to heal the divide among certain segments of our population.
The day itself: a day of penitence and fasting, derives from the most ancient of practices in the Old Testament (thereby providing yet another direct link between the Old and New Testaments, making the Old VERY relevant today still). Ashes were also a sign of humility and repentance out of the Old Testament, thereby providing the symbolic meaning for us today, which goes from symbolic to the reality of the individual penitent who has received the imposition of ashes. Ash, or dust, drives home the reality for us that we are all mortal and finite. As the first human parents are told in the garden, "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19). We all return to dust upon death, as the sum total of our physical existence breaks down, becomes food for other organisms, and returns to the dust from which it came. in other words, the very foundation of Ash Wednesday is found in human existence: birth, sin, and death itself.
Abraham's own view and humility before God includes him recounting, "I am nothing but dust and ashes." (Genesis 18:27) The placement of ashes upon the head of a person was associated with a sign of repentance and humility in the face of sin and suffering (cf. 2 Samuel 13:19). Job, upon recognizing his own place before God (that God was God and he was not), replied, "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.... ...Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:3, 6) The prophet Jeremiah, among others, calls for a return to God, in humility and repentance for having turned away from him, with the call to "put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son." (Jeremiah 6:26).
So within this framework of humility and repentance before God, dating back to the very beginning, we too mark the beginning of the season of Lent with this day: Ash Wednesday. It is the season that recalls our own unworthiness before God because of sin, culminating with God's solution as a part of His divine plan: The coming of, the ministry of, the passion and death of, and the resurrection of the Messiah. Tying us into this eternal reminder, the palms from the previous year's Holy Week are burned to create the ashes that remind us of our own mortality and unworthiness before God.
Whether you observe this day or not: May you recall these things, for they are true of us all. May we all recognize our own mortality and unworthiness before God, and may it inspire us to once again return to God, our maker and redeemer. May we recognize the absolute and sovereign truth of God's Word, which includes the very essence of what human existence entails: our mortality and unworthiness to be in God's presence. May we recognize again the great gift of God in the mercy and grace extended to us in spite of our mortality and unworthiness, that comes to us through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.