Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. At the Monastery, we follow the tradition of burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday and using those ashes in our liturgy. Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality, poverty, and penance.
The Christian custom on being marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday draws from the early western church. Lent began as the season of final preparation (following a three-years’ instruction as catechumens) for those seeking Holy Baptism at Easter. But the season was also used as a period of personal public penance in which those separated from the Church were restored to communion and fellowship by being sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. By the tenth century, this public penance had fallen into disuse, but a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.
The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday offer a two-fold reminder, which can be helpful to carry forward throughout the whole of Lent. First, ashes are a reminder of our mortality. As we hear in the funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The ashes remind us to live every day with an awareness of the preciousness of life, the stewardship of our resources, and gratitude for all the gifts of this life, which will end.
Secondly, ashes remind us of poverty. By taking on this outward sign of ashes, we acknowledge our identification with the poor, on two levels. In an internal way, all of us probably know the ways in which we feel vulnerable and in need, in which we come up short. This feeds our internal identification with poverty.
By taking the sign of ashes on our forehead, we also choose to take on an external identification with the poor of this world. We belong to them, and they to us. With ashes on our forehead for others to see, we take on a public pledge of the remediation of others’ poverty.
Ash Wednesday – like the whole ensuing season of Lent – beckons us again into our work: of turning afresh to the Lord, seeing ourselves clearly, and giving our need to the One who formed us from the dust.
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice
The liturgy for Ash Wednesday contains many rich resources for prayer and reflection, which can be used throughout the season of Lent. You might find it meaningful, in your personal prayer, to return to elements from this stirring, soul-searching liturgy.
- Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent (BCP 264)
- Psalm 51 (BCP 266)
- Litany of Penance (BCP 267-9)
It has long been the Christian practice to adopt during the season of Lent some spiritual practice that will draw us closer to God and nearer to the self whom God intends us to be. For some, this practice is a “giving up” – breaking some unhealthy habit, for instance, or examining prayerfully some disordered attachment in our lives in order to gain freedom from it. For others, it is a “taking on” – adopting a healthy practice, or engaging our minds and bodies in new and life-giving ways, or reaching out to others. This Lent, prayerfully consider what practice would allow you to take the next step on your pilgrimage of faith.
Throughout Lent, we hear the call for repentance most every day. Repentance asks us to observe in retrospect where we had it wrong and with whom, and then to resolve to make amends where we can. You might find a daily practice of repentance to be a helpful Lenten discipline. At the end of each day, stop; review your day. Be thankful in every way you can be thankful; pay attention to where you need to repent. And then claim Jesus’ promise that he is with us to create in us a new heart.
Perhaps the most important discipline to take on during Lent is intentionality. Don’t sort-of do something. Don’t sort-of fast from something. Be intentional: be really present to the grace of this season and its power to draw us near to God.
Praying the Questions
In the collect from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we pray, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….” The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The sense of the word is about having a heart broken open. How is your heart being broken open now, in this season of life? What is God inviting you to in this opening?
Lent is not a time to be miserable, to try to lose weight, to break old habits. Instead it is a time to discover who we truly are: a people worthy of pardon and absolution, a people worthy of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a people worthy to stand in God’s presence, a people worthy of God’s love. The purpose of Lent is to discover our worth, not to revel in our misery. This Lent, even as you acknowledge your sin, you might also mediate on your own worthiness. As you look in the mirror, can you see someone who is holy because God is holy? And as you go about the world – on the T, in a shop, at your office – can you see those around you as a temple of God, because God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell therein?
The penitence, self-examination, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving enjoined upon us in Lent are for us, for our own benefit, and not for God’s. They are meant to bring us into a face-to-face encounter with our need, as well as the need of our brothers and sisters. These spiritual tools have been sharpened and refined by the generations and bequeathed to us for the sake of our growth in humility and larger vision. The longer we look, the more God will reveal. How have you been blind or refused God’s invitations to grow?