On Ash Wednesday, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” This service marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The practice of using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Hebrew people (Jon 3:6; Mt 11:21). Christian use of the ashes goes back to the 2nd century, and it was widely practiced by the 5th century.
Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It sets the believer on a sobering time of self-examination and repentance, to wait upon and prepare for the renewal given by God’s Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
A typical Ash Wednesday service includes the invitation for each person to come forward to have the sign of the cross marked on his or her forehead. We are to be reminded that we, like the palms that have been burned to make the ashes, will someday turn to dust. As your forehead is marked with ashes, you will hear these words from Genesis 3:19—”Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
A pastor tells of how every year after Ash Wednesday, he puts the brass bowl containing the leftover ashes on his office desk. A church member, stopping by to chat, looked into the bowl and asked in horror, “Whose ashes are you keeping on your desk?” He answered, “All of ours!”
Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we all die. The ashes speak of the virtue of humility, of knowing our human limits and knowing we need God. Humility comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.
Ashes remind us of our mortality, but why ashes in the sign of a cross? The cross in ashes reminds us of human sin and the resulting injustice that is part of life. The cross reminds us that our innocent friend Jesus was abused and tortured and executed. Even on a somber evening like this one, the ashes in the shape of a cross remind us that the cross is not the last word—the resurrection lies beyond it.
Why be reminded of our human mortality and sin? To encourage us to fast from those attitudes and actions that drive a wedge between us and God and embrace those which bring us closer to God. Lent is often caricatured as a long-faced, no-fun season. But Lent is really about saying no to some things so we can say yes to others. At the outset of his ministry Jesus was tempted by Satan to say yes to the chance to use his gifts for immediate gratification of his physical needs, to say yes to the enjoyment of material wealth and the thrill of power over others. He said no to these temptations, and headed into the towns and villages to say yes to long days and nights of healing, teaching, feeding, and exorcising.
During Lent we are called to say no to any habit that comes between God and ourselves. It might be an unhealthy physical habit: unhealthy eating patterns, drinking, drug abuse. It might be an unhealthy spiritual diet: the habit of vicious gossip, of jealousy of others’ accomplishments, or of consistently seeing the worst in people and situations. It might be indifference to the condition of the homeless and the lonely in our community. It might be the habit of judging and categorizing others to maintain our sense of superiority. It might be the tendency to see our spiritual lives as limited to one hour of worship on Sundays. It might be the habit of expecting unbroken peace and inward joy without putting in the time to cultivate our prayer relationship with God. It might be the habit of facing life’s challenges without factoring the presence of God into the equation.
When we answer Christ’s call to say no to destructive practices, energy is left to say yes to positive disciplines. We can fill the space and time left by our fasting with some positive disciplines to help us respond to God’s love more intentionally. John Wesley called them the means of grace: prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, acts of kindness aimed at justice, and regular attendance at corporate worship where we participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion and meet God as the scriptures are read and proclaimed.
What do you feel drawn to say ‘no’ to and what positive disciplines and actions are you going to say ‘yes’ to this beautiful Lenten season?
Consider attending a service for the imposition of ashes this Ash Wednesday. Services are taking place at each of the three sacred spaces hosting PassionArt: BE STILL.
Adapted from a meditation by Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.