I can’t believe it is almost time for Lent to begin. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday marking the first day of solemn repentance for most Christians as we turn our hearts and minds toward Good Friday. Then we can celebrate with full gusto on Easter Sunday.
Ever wonder about Ash Wednesday?
On Ash Wednesday, many churches hold a special worship service where the people are blessed with ashes, typically marking their foreheads with the sign of the cross. The blessing typically comes with a reminder that we all come from ashes, and to ashes we all will return.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are meant to represent dust. When receiving ashes on their foreheads, the worshipper hears, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is a reference what God says to Adam when exiling him from the Garden of Eden (in the Christian Bible, Adam is literally formed from dust). What a humbling reminder.
The marking of the forehead has been a known custom since Pope Gregory the Great in 604. It has been said to have a twofold purpose, one being the ashes were marked for humility and mortality and then also for sorrow and repentance.
In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.
The church I grew up in didn’t practice Ash Wednesday, but I have read that this practice has grown in many Christian churches since the 1970s. The three point parish I attend and serve in now offers three different Ash Wednesday services.
The custom of repenting with ashes was not an original Christian act, as the earliest Jews often sat on the ground in the rubble of ashes and spread it over themselves in order to express their sorrow for their poor deeds unto the world.
The day before is called Shrove Tuesday. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren’t allowed in Lent. Pancakes are eaten on this day because they contain fat, butter, and eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. The name Shrove comes from the old word “shrive” which means to confess. On Shrove Tuesday, in the Middle Ages, people used to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the season of Lent began.
The first day of Lent in Iceland, called Öskudagur, is similar to Halloween in the U.S. Kids dress up in costumes and tour their neighborhoods singing songs in exchange for candy. The holiday even makes room for mischief—in one fading tradition, kids will sometimes pin “ash bags” (often filled with grains instead of ash) to the backs of their peers when they aren’t looking.
Thought Provoking Quotes about Ash Wednesday
“ O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.” St Ephrem the Syrian
“The real question of the Lenten season is how will I clear out the junk and garbage in my life so that I can be restored to God in some fresh way? What are the disciplines that will open up space for God to create a clean heart and new spirit in me?” Ruth Haley Barton
“A few wise words echoing through Ash Wednesday urge me to deeper things: renewed dedication, constant compassion and mindful awareness. I leave marveling at how simple and sublime is this envelope of the soul, which one day return to dust, dust, only dust.” Joyce Rupp
“Lord Jesus, You are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on you what was mine; yet set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.” Martin Luther
“What does God do with dust and ash?
- He grows things out of them.
- He covers them with purple raiments.
- He lifts people out of them.
- He unfairly accepts them in exchange for beauty.
- He writes mysterious things in them.
- He spits in them and uses the mud to give sight.
- He washes them off your stinky feet.
- He breathes into them and creates new life.
- He descends into them, submits to their suffocation, and emerges alive and spotless.
- When you return to dust, even if your body should be burnt to ashes and scattered over the four winds, he who is the Lord over the earth will be able to collect you, reconstitute you, and resurrect you into a body fit for eternity.“
Lent a spring-cleaning time for the soul. As I prepared to enter this season, I am seeking to let go of obstacles that block me from God and to renew my spirit by bathing in His light and spirit.
How will you refresh your spirit on Ash Wednesday?