While many Christians wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, few, if any, don sackcloth! And yet, the two are often mentioned in the same breath in Scripture (1Mac 3:47; Esther 4:3-4; Is 58:5; Jer 6:26; Dan 9:3; Jon 3:6; Mt 11:21, to name a few). Today, we tend to picture someone wearing sackcloth as someone wearing a burlap bag with holes for the head and arms. In biblical times, however, sackcloth was made from the coarse hair of a black goat. Because it produced some degree of pain or discomfort, it was worn by one who was mourning or as a public sign of repentance, atonement, or submission. Because of this, sackcloth was sometimes worn by the Prophets as an outward sign of their call to repentance.
The purpose of wearing sackcloth is easily seen. While wearing colorful and luxurious clothing was a sign of joy and celebration, wearing sackcloth was a sign of demonstrating grief, humility, and, or, sadness. This outward sign was a way of expressing true and intense remorse for one’s sins. It was intended to express one’s sincere desire to turn one’s heart away from sin and to follow God faithfully. It was a physical “act of contrition.” Although we no longer wear sackcloth as part of our Lenten practice, we are still called to practice true contrition: recognizing the discomfort that our sins are causing, grieving for the damage our sins have caused, and expressing a sincere desire to repent of those sins and to follow God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.