and to dust you shall return.
The Ash Wednesday Lutheran liturgy marks the beginning of a penitential discipline which climaxes in the absolution and peace of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The mood is penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life; its goal is participation in the Lenten discipline, which, by its focus on the mystery of redemption, should strengthen us by bringing us anew to the gift of our Baptism. "Lent" is from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning "springtime" and so is to be understood as the holy springtime of the soul, a time for preparation, planting, and growth.
Ashes are an extraordinarily rich symbol rooted in ancient customs and practices. Ashes, in a Jewish and Christian context, suggest judgment and God's condemnation of sin; frailty, our total dependence upon God for life; humiliation; and repentance. We are reminded forcefully of the words of the committal in the burial service, "...earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." For one day those words will be said over us.
Moreover, ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were once used as a cleansing agent in the absence of soap, and on Ash Wednesday the ashes have sometimes been understood as a penitential substitute for water as a sign of Baptism. Water both stifles and refreshes. drowns ans makes alive, so the ashes also tell of both death and renewal. A Further example of death and renewal shown by ashes is the ancient custom of burning the fields in the spring to destroy the old and to prepare for the new.