Q: Excuse me, but is that dirt on your forehead?
A: Today is Ash Wednesday, the day many Christian churches observe as the beginning of the season called Lent. The ashes are made from the burning of Palms from last Palm Sunday. Clergy all over the world mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of worshippers with the words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Q: Well, that’s cheerful. Why would anyone want to start a religious season with a downer?
A: It isn’t intended to be a downer, but a reminder that our mortal lives will end one day and that each day is a gift to be lived with intention and care. The phrase about dust comes from Genesis 3:19 where God reminds Adam and Eve—who represent the first humans—that they will not live forever, and that suffering comes as a result of separation from God’s love and intention for the world. We live in a broken creation where everything is in decay. But still God’s love is present, urging us to acts of kindness and sustaining us through times of sorrow and confusion. God’s intentions for the whole creation are slowly rising up, much like the spring flowers push through the dirt. By putting ashes on our foreheads, we affirm our unity with creation—dirt—from which new life comes, literally all that sustains life on this earth.
Q: How did this practice begin? I don’t remember anything about it in the Bible.
A: That is true. There is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible, just as there is no mention of Christmas or Easter; but people in Biblical history used ashes as a sign of mourning when someone died, or as a sign of repentance and sorrow. When Jacob heard that his son, Joseph had supposedly died, he threw ashes on his head. (It turned out later that Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery.) By the 8th century, there is mention in writings of Christian monks about placing ashes on one’s head to signify repentance during Lent. The practice was rejected by Martin Luther during the Reformation, but was retained by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches. In recent times, other Christians have adopted the practice to help mark a time of preparation for Easter, a time to evaluate our lives, to make amends, to confess that we are sorry for the ways we hurt others, and to ask God to give us wisdom to live in ways that are life-giving for ourselves and others.
Q: So what is this season of Lent? Do all Christians observe it?
A: Lent is a season that begins 46 days before Easter. The word “Lent” literally means to lengthen—as the days in the northern hemisphere are getting longer. During the 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays which are always feast days), Christians are encouraged to take time for a personal inventory, and through practices such as fasting or prayer, to renew and strengthen their spiritual life. The forty days remind us of the 40 days that Noah was in the Ark, sustained on the waters of life; the forty years the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness; and the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. All of these events remind us that in life we will face times of testing, doubt, and challenge. A renewal of spiritual practices helps Christians return to the “basics,” and clean out any resentments or inner turmoil that separate us from the love of God. Lent is most often observed by the Churches which trace their roots directly to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox faith, such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists, which are often called “liturgical” churches, keeping a yearly calendar of feasts, fasts and Biblical readings. But don’t forget, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” or Shrove Tuesday which comes just before Lent--a party time, a “last hurrah and Alleluia” before the somber and more reflective season of Lent. On Easter, the Alleluias are restored in music, readings, and worship.
Q: When do you remove the ashes?
A: No one is required to keep the ashes on his or her face after the ritual. Many Christians choose to leave the ashes visible as a witness to their faith, and, as others ask, there is an opportunity to share their belief.
Q: I’m not an Episcopalian and haven’t been to church much. Can I come to receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
A: Of course! Our church has an “open door” policy. We expect seekers, doubters and those who are “shopping” for a church that is authentic, genuine, and has a balance between the traditions of the past and the needs of the present. You might find that our Church is not what you expect and everything you hope for. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful way to begin a journey of faith, to explore and take a step toward wholeness and peace in your life. Some churches even take the Ashes to the streets! You might find “Ashes to go” at the train station, downtown Baltimore, or on the sidewalk in front of a church. But no matter where they are offered, know that the invitation is open to all. Come and see what you have been missing!
Anne+ is the Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Lappans. She says,