With the recent reflection of The Day of Ashes, commonly known as Ash Wednesday, I thought it would be useful to explore and try to uncover this strange notion of wiping ash on someone’s forehead.
Firstly, what is the ash about?
In ancient times and in Biblical texts, ashes were often representative of mourning and sorrow. The ash representing an aftermath that barren, unthinkable. When I consider the old tradition of marking a cross on the forehead, the ash isn’t the interesting part.
The marking of the forehead is mentioned in several places throughout ancient texts. One example is in the Book of Revelation 14 v 1: –
“Then I saw the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads”
There is also a Jewish Old Testament Prophet named Ezekiel who tells of people having a mark on their forehead, a mark that separates them from others. It was in troubled times that this ‘mark’ separated them of from others. These marked people were repentant, mournful and it seems to echo the sentiment of The Day of Ashes.
I think it gets very interesting when you discover that more literal translations didn’t speak of putting a mark on the people’s forehead, but a Tav instead.
“Put a Tav on their forehead”
The Tav is 22nd & last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and in the Ktav Ashuri dialect the Tav looks like an ‘N’, but in Ktav Ivri the Tav is scribed like a cross. So the people that Ezekiel spoke of were marked, separated and set apart, even protected by having a ‘cross’ on their forehead. Is this a glimpse of a similar “saved by the Cross” that occurred at Easter time?
Now the Tav not only had a similarity to a cross, but it also looked like the Greek letter ‘Chi’, (pronounced KAI’), which as it happen, looks like two crossed lines, like an “x” or a cross. The Greek letter Chi is the first letter in the word “Christ” in Greek (as in Christos). Jewish Rabbis would have seen the connection between Tav and Chi and this is probably the “mark” that is mentioned in Revelation. Marked with the name of Christ.
So the marking on the forehead on Ash Wednesday with a cross (the 1st letter of our Saviour Jesus Christ) becomes very significant. Almost a recognition, a recognition that we belong to Christ.
So as Ash Wednesday passes, we don’t physically mark our forehead with ashes, although you’re welcome to do so, but we do recognise that we are marked with the identity of ‘The Christ’. We are sealed… sealed with approval.
In the Book of Revelation again, Chapter 7 verse 3 – 4 it says: –
“…we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants. And I heard how many were marked with the seal of God”
So we are not only marked, but sealed. The seal of God is the approval, God’s vouching for His people. Like a medieval signet ring that bore the authority or ‘mark’ of a King, we have His approval, his seal.
Sealed, owned, protected and made righteous by our Saviour.
Maybe our focus, as we begin Lent 2012 is that we have our identity in Christ Jesus, the Majesty who gave everything for us.
When we know that we are marked by Christ, that we are hidden in Christ, we can come to Him whenever we need to – especially during these six weeks of focus during Lent. 40 days of focussing on Jesus and his mission, his obedience to a loving God who planned to save us all by sending His Son Jesus in our place.
It is astounding that the symbol of freedom and acceptance, forgiveness and protection throughout the ancient texts was always ‘a cross’. From the Hebrew ‘Tav’ in the Old Testament, to the Greek ‘Chi’ in the New Testament, to the wooden cross used to enact the death penalty. The symbolism and actions of ‘The Cross’ have continued to change the timeline after their point in history.
We are marked with the identity of Christ and chosen by Him for such a time as this, for this shift. Let that be our focus during these coming weeks.