Symbols are amazing. They communicate powerfully.
Thanksgiving two years ago, climbing Enchanted Rock outside of Fredericksburg, Texas, I reached the summit, when a young boy ran up to me very excited and animated. It took a moment but I realized he was deaf, and signing something to me very emphatically and quickly. Fortunately an older girl with him who was also deaf, simply pointed at my hat. I pointed back at my hat and mouthed Denver Broncos, and held up my finger saying "They're number 1." He yanked open his jacket and smiling ear to ear revealed his Denver Broncos t-shirt.
Symbols have power to communicate and to connect us.
When we step into an elevator, we are presented with a panel of symbols. Most of them have numbers. Each of them represent a real physical location in the building. They are symbols.
Yet those small button symbols have the power to connect us to the actual reality. If you push the button, that small symbol will connect you to a real place.
Churches are full of symbols that are like those buttons. By themselves they are pretty plain things. But they connect us to a reality beyond themselves.
So why in the world would we want to use ashes?
Ashes are so dirty, so dark, so unfriendly looking. I would prefer gold dust or glitter.
But those ashes connect us to the reality of our mortality, our powerlessness over death.
And when we connect with that utter powerlessness, then an even greater reality can break into our lives. God. God who patiently waits until we admit that we are powerless, and that we utterly, desperately, need him.