Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
What is Lent?
Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)
Where did it come from?
The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.
What’s the point?
Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate. Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.
We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.
Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.
What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?
They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.
Checking out a service.
You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).
Tired of the noise?
In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. I encourage you this Wednesday, find a service and attend!