Why ashes on Ash Wednesday?
Every so often I run inot people, mostly young children, who ask good questions that sometimes make me even think for a moment.
Such was the case last week when I attended Ash Wednesday services and heard some children asking about the ashes. In between kids exchanging hearts and treats for Valentine’s Day and adults giving roses, they were also having the sign of the cross smudged with ashes on their foreheads.
Incidentally, the last time the ashes and roses met on Feb. 14 was in 1945. Their curiosity piqued in wanting to know why ashes on Ash Wednesday.
For Christians around the world, Ash Wednesday is the start of the Lenten season leading up to Christ being crucified on the cross and rising from the dead on Easter.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of worshipers. Most often the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” comes with the placement of the ashes.
The use of ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance has a long history in Jewish and Christian worship. The imposition of ashes can be a powerful nonverbal and experiential way of participating in the call to repentance and reconciliation.
Christians bearing the sign of the cross on their forehead are sharing a formal practice that dates back over a thousand years.
As I found last week, Ash Wednesday emphasizes a dual encounter: we confront our own mortality and confess our sin before God within the faith community. I discovered that the form and content of the service focus on the dual themes of sin and death in the light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
Through my years of worshipping, I have noticed Ash Wednesday is one of the most solemn days of the church year. Receiving the ashes has always been a great opportunity for me to show pause and think about my life and the life Jesus endured.
With Ash Wednesday coinciding with Valentine’s Day this year, it certainly set up a curious confluence of decadence and abstinence. No doubt, the truly faithful found a way to multi-task and love, eat and pray. At least in my case for this year, I replaced romance with ashes.
The calendar sets up another interesting twist of irony this year. Easter falls on April Fool’s Day. So who knows what’s going to be in the eggs at the Easter Egg Hunt.
It’s also the first time since 1945 that the two have met on the same date.
If anyone has a good question they would like answered about anything, let me know and I’ll go in hot pursuit of tracking down the answer.