Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. During this period of forty days we give ourselves to prayer, fasting and self-denial in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the day of Resurrection. In a few moments we will present ourselves for the imposition of ashes, drawing on a tradition of the Church that is over a thousand years old.
Why these ashes?
Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. There are numerous references to the symbolic use of ashes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill all the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1);
- Job repented in sackcloth and ashes after he was struck by calamitous circumstances (Job 42:6);
- Foreseeing the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Daniel “turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3);
- In response to Jonah’s call to repentance, the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-6).
The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance was a recognized practice in Old Testament times.
Jesus also made reference to the use of ashes as a sign of repentance: Referring to towns that refused to repent of sin although they had witnessed his miracles and heard the good news, Jesus said, “If the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).
The early Church continued the symbolic use of ashes. Those desiring to be baptized began a period of public penance on the first day of Lent. They were covered with sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. Tertullian, in the early 3rd century, charges these penitents to “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes” as a sign of their readiness to be identified with Christ in baptism.
By the tenth century, this initiation process had fallen into disuse; however, a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church – a practice we will follow today – by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.
The ashes we will receive today have a two-fold purpose: they offer us a reminder and an invitation.
They are a reminder of our mortality. We live on this earth for a little while; then we perish. As we say in our funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The day our life will end is known only to God, and it may be today. Live today – live every day – with an awareness of the preciousness of life. Use the resources entrusted to you wisely, express gratitude constantly for all the blessings of this life, give generously, live fully; because this life will end, and maybe even today.
They are also a reminder of our poverty. All of us are poor, at least in some way. Some of us may know, or may have known, economic poverty at some point in our lifetimes. Others may have experienced a poverty of love at some point in life, perhaps even as children. We may have felt the poverty of neglect or abuse. We may know the poverty of poor health or of a broken spirit or of some other form of limitation. We may know the poverty of unrealized hopes and dreams. Suffering is woven into the texture of human existence; none of us escapes it. All of us will know some form of poverty.
These ashes also bind us to the poor of this world. We belong to them, and they to us. With these ashes, we take on a public pledge and prayer for the alleviation of the poverty that afflicts so many in our world. We pray that we may not be “hard-hearted,” indifferent to the needs of the poor and the suffering, but that we may be given “broken and contrite hearts,” hearts broken open and emptied of self in order that they might be filled with the love and compassion of God.
So these ashes serve as a reminder: a reminder of our mortality; a reminder of our poverty, and of the poverty of others.
They also serve as an invitation. They invite us to repentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life. They invite us to renew the promises we made at our baptisms, renouncing evil and putting our trust in God.
In a few moments we will be invited to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, 265). Many of us will take on some form of spiritual discipline or ascetical practice over the next forty days. We may choose to give up something, to fast from certain kinds of food, for example, or from unhealthy habits. We may choose to give up worry, or regret, or revenge; or to fast from jealousy or anger or lust. We may decide to refrain for a time from shopping for new clothes, or from watching television, or from multi-tasking. We may set ourselves to overcome an addiction.
Or we may choose to take on something for Lent – some regular practice of prayer, perhaps. We may adopt some practice that helps us live a more balanced life. We may give alms. We may seek time for silence and solitude, or go on retreat. We may set aside time each day to read and meditate on scripture. We may choose to perform “random acts of kindness” to alleviate the suffering of others. We may decide to do something heroic and selfless.
Whatever we choose to do or not do as a sign of our repentance and commitment, let us do it whole-heartedly, not to impress God or others or ourselves with our goodness, but genuinely humbling ourselves before God, seeking God’s mercy and opening ourselves to the power of God to convert and transform our lives.
What are these ashes? An invitation to life – the true life, the abundant life, the eternal life that God has promised us in Christ. Receive them with sorrow, yes, but also with joy!
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