Cleaning Up Our Act - Gordon Conwell

Cleaning Up Our Act

Dr. David Currie (MDiv ’84)

A few years ago I noticed an article about Ash Wednesday in a Sunday newspaper magazine. It was subtitled: “What are ashes meant to say to secular passersby?”

The article suggested two main answers to that question. First, Christians are strange! Second, Christians think they are “holier than thou” and are taking this opportunity to show everyone!

Maybe you’ve heard similar responses and are tempted to agree, but that may be because we haven’t been asking the right question. A more appropriate question is, “What are ashes meant to say to believers?”

On Ash Wednesday, we admit that what we’re showing on the outside reflects how we are on the inside all the time: soiled, dirty, unclean.

In the Scriptures, physical uncleanness symbolizes spiritual uncleanness. This symbolism is powerfully reflected in the laws regarding leprosy—a metaphor for sin.[1] Both sin and leprosy can seem superficial at first but reflect a deep-seated, seemingly unsolvable problem. Leprosy might first manifest as just some discolored skin. In a similar way the initial manifestations of sin are easy to ignore. “Hey, everyone tells white lies, cheats on their taxes, uses racist language, gossips about others . . .”

Sin, like leprosy, desensitizes those inflicted with it. Leprosy attacks nerves in skin and extremities, often resulting in deformed hands and feet. These deformations are not directly caused by the disease itself but because of injuries caused by lack of sensation. As we sin, we lose the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This loss leads us deeper and deeper into behavior that displeases God and harms others and ourselves.

There are also similarities between the consequences of leprosy and sin. First comes isolation from others, as seen in Leviticus 13:46, “[the unclean] shall live alone.” Likewise, sin alienates us from all those around us. Even worse, both conditions also cause banishment from God’s presence. Verse 46 continues: “they must live outside the camp,” which meant being cut off from God’s dwelling place on earth, the tabernacle, just like Adam and Eve’s sin led to their eviction from the Garden where God was most present.

In the end, both leprosy and sin lead to death. While leprosy is curable today, it meant a long, lingering, lonely death in the ancient world. Romans 6:23 spells out what our sin earns us: “the wages of sin is death.”

The devastating consequences of sin and leprosy demand an appropriate public response. Lepers had to outwardly show their condition in wearing torn clothes and crying out “Unclean, unclean!” Ash Wednesday provides believers with the opportunity to make this kind of public response to our sin.

When someone died in the ancient world, people would put on sackcloth and ashes. On Ash Wednesday, we are embodying and echoing Isaiah’s confession “I am a man of unclean lips!” and acknowledging our unfitness to be in a holy God’s life-giving presence. [2]

The reason we respond in this way is not to rub our noses in our own spiritual filth as if that were an end in itself! It’s important because our spiritual uncleanness need not be fatal. There is a cure, a cure hinted at in Jesus’ interactions with lepers.

Ashes show us that Jesus is the only one who can truly cleanse the defilement of our sin. The process is embodied in his healing of a man covered in leprosy.[3] Like the leper, we must voice our need for cleansing from sin like our dirty foreheads need cleansing.

Then, we have to allow Christ to remove our uncleanness by the touch of his hand. Jesus did not have to touch the leper to clean him. Why did he touch him? He did so out of love since the leper had probably not been touched by another person for years–and as a symbol of what Christ would do on the cross to save all who trust in him. Touching a leper made Jesus ceremonially unclean and temporarily just like a leper. It was as if Jesus took on the leper’s uncleanness and gave the leper his own cleanness.

I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that when ashes are administered to believers it is by hand, usually in the sign of the cross. For it is only in admitting our uncleanness that we can experience Christ’s cleansing touch, whose pierced hand bears away all our spiritual leprosy.

[1] E.g., Leviticus 13:1-3, 45-46

[2] Isaiah 6:5

[3] E.g., Luke 5:12-14

Dr. David Currie has been a part of the Gordon-Conwell community for over two decades and currently serves as the Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program and Professor of Pastoral Theology.