Today is Ash Wednesday, and the church that I attend had an Ash Wednesday service.
The pastor opened his sermon by saying that he did not have a poker face. One can look at his face and tell what he is thinking and feeling. When he was a circuit pastor, he had to attend installation services for new pastors, and a professor at one of these services was droning on and on. People told the pastor that he needed to work on his poker face, since he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there, listening to that professor!
This story was a transition to a discussion of “disfigured faces.” In Matthew 6:16, Jesus tells his disciples that, when they fast, they are not to be like the Pharisees, who disfigure their faces so that people know and admire that they are fasting. But did we not disfigure our faces when we put ashes on our foreheads? Not necessarily. The sort of behavior that Jesus was criticizing was like when people remind others continually that they are giving up chocolate for Lent: they are trying to show people how pious they are.
Ashes on our head, however, testify to God. The ashes are in the shape of a cross, which evokes Christ’s crucifixion for our sins. The ashes remind us of death: dust we are, and to dust we shall return. Christ experienced death to deliver us from death. The pastor also compared the ashes to the ashes of a red heifer in Numbers 19: the ashes of a red heifer ritually purified those who touched a corpse, and the ashes on our forehead remind us of Christ, who cleanses us of impurity.