It always seems jarring to Lutheran Christians to hear the Gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday (don't disfigure your face to show men you are fasting) and then be invited up to receive ashes on your face! What gives? A direct disobedience to our Lord's commandment?
Most assuredly NOT that. The ashes for which this day is named are not to show ANYONE that you are fasting (for who knows if you are or not?). What they are, is shown by the words accompanying them:
Remember, O Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
Thus, the ashes show not fasting, but dying. Remember, O Man, and everyone who sees you - remember one and all - that we are dying. That we are headed for the earth. The words first spoken by our loving God on the day of the Fall ring down the long corridor of the centuries: "Remember! You are dust! To dust you will return!"
But there is more. The ashes are placed on the forehead in the form of a cross. A reminder that though we will surely return to the earth and die, become ashes, as it were, there is One who came among us and did this - one over whom death had NO claim. And His death is the destruction of death itself - the wiping out of sin, the gift of unending life.
Thus the ashes are placed upon a dying people under the sign that this death has itself been transformed by His enduring it for us. You will die, but you will not die hopeless. You will go to the grave in the certainty that He who became dust and ashes for you will RAISE you from the earth to which you have returned and bring you into the Home He has prepared. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to Him forever!!!