The season of Lent begins with the touch of ashes.

What is it that we are actually doing when we mark the cross in ash on our heads?

For want of a better way of putting it, I think we turn ourselves inside out. For one day, we show each other and ourselves what we’re really like. We put a messy cross on our foreheads to say, publicly, ‘I have mess. I have sin. I am not right. I need help.’

Today is about honesty. About admitting that we’re not perfect. Admitting that there is much in us which, left unchecked, will prove destructive for us, for those around us, and perhaps beyond, too.

Ash Wednesday can be seen as a service that condemns, that concentrates on what is wrong. It leads into a season, Lent, that is also often presented as a very negative, self-punishing time. Lent is for doing important work, inner and outer, personal and collective, which may be hard. It is also a source of good news as it has the potential to offer just what we need.

Because the ash cross is a great leveller. It says, my sin is my own, but I am not alone in being a sinner.  It’s precisely what we see in today’s wonderful story from John’s gospel: the woman taken in adultery is not alone. Her sin is her own, but she is not alone in having sinned.

It reminds us of our creation, lovingly made and beloved. It is an outward action that can change us on the inside.

The ash reminds us that what we do, our action, the things that people see when they look at us, and what they hear when we speak – these things shape who we are inside as well as changing the world around us. We have a Lent’s worth of actions ahead of us that can help us become more who God created us to be.

The ash is also a temporary mark. It’s not a brand, there for ever as a reminder that we are sinners. This is a mark that rubs off to remind us that we are sinners who can be forgiven.  Whether you keep your ash on for the rest of the day, or wipe it off later in the service, there comes that moment when you remove the sign of your sin.

Ashes made for this year's Lent.

Ashes made for this year’s Lent.

It is a strange anointing, this cross that comes to mark us as Lent begins. Ashes, dust, dirt: the stuff we walk upon, that we sweep away, that we work to get rid of, now comes to remind us who we are, where we are from, where we are bound.

How terrible. And how marvellous, that God should feel so tender toward the dust as to create us from it, and return us to it, breathing through us all the while. Even after releasing us from the blessed dust at the last, God continues to breathe us toward whatever it is we are becoming. Good news, hope can rise from the ashes. From the overshadowing cloud in the Transfiguration story, the voice comes – You are my Beloved.

Resources taken from and

And here is a beautiful sonnet, with personal, collective and environmental challenge for Ash Wednesday written by Malcolm Guite:

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow

brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;

the forests of the world are burning now

and you make late repentance for the loss.

But all the trees of God would clap their hands,

the very stones themselves would shout and sing,

If you could covenant to love these lands

and recognise in Christ their lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,

He weeps to see the ancient places burn,

and still you make what purchases you please

and still to dust and ashes you return.

But Hope could rise from ashes even now

beginning with this sign upon your brow.