Last night, we had our annual Ash Wednesday service. It really is one of my favorite services in the church calendar. It isn’t a…fun service (although as I told my wife last night, that was probably the funniest Ash Wednesday sermons I’ve ever given). Ash Wednesday begins our observance of Lent. Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter and the observance of the Resurrection.
I often hear, after the service, things like “We’re not Catholic!” from people who do not receive the ashes. Or, “why do we do this? It doesn’t make sense!” Last night I heard, for the first time (but didn’t get a chance to talk with this person) “Christ wasn’t burned – we don’t use ashes…” So I thought that I’d sort of address these things -and a few others – here.
Lent is a time – remembering and “celebrating,” the forty days in the wilderness in which Jesus, Our Lord, was tempted by the Devil. The word translated “tempt” and its variations also means “test,” and it is these days that we remember – the days where Our Lord was tested and tempted and suffered before He began His ministry. Like the last tempering of a sword, Jesus needed to be tested in order to make sure He was, in His humanity if not His deity, strong enough to perform the tasks He had been given.
Lent is a sort of training period. In the ancient church, Lent was often the last time of teaching catechists before they were baptized and admitted into the underground and illegal church. We, as followers of Christ, need to continually train and grow in our faith so we, too, may withstand the temptations and testing that occur in the world that does not fully realize to whom it belongs. Lent is the time to focus and grow spiritually in Christ – it is a time of growth and challenge. That is why people traditionally give something up – although in truth it seems that in many ways one would be better served by adding a spiritual discipline rather than legalistically swearing to NOT do something.
As with any period of training and difficulty, it is helpful to go through some sort of beginning ceremony (think of the Olympics without an opening ceremony!). For us in the West, that ceremony is Ash Wednesday. During the Ash Wednesday service, we recall that we are mortal and broken and sinful – we are the reason that Jesus HAD to come, HAD to suffer, HAD to die. Without our sin – all of humanity’s sin – there would be no reason for the Cross. We begin the training with a realization of why we need it. We start the journey to Easter in shame and mourning. Traditionally, throughout history as well as the Biblical witness, mourning and shame were marked with ashes. When Job lost everything, he covered himself in ashes and sat in an ash pit. When the Hebrews were faced with destruction, they fasted and put ashes upon themselves. When Esther was about to face death, she asked her people to do that same thing. To plead with God for mercy. The ashes have nothing to do with how Christ died, they have to do with our acceptance of our own culpability in His death. As many psychologists might comment, you cannot get better unless you realize that you are, in fact, sick. The ashes are a sign that we know we are sick.
If anything, Ash Wednesday reflects an older, Hebrew tradition more than a contemporary Roman Catholic one. It seems that the service is more common among Catholics, but many other denominations encourage its observance – Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists… it belongs to the tradition of the One Holy and Apostolic Church. The Hebrews covered themselves in ashes and sackcloth and fasted from food and water for periods of time in order to remind themselves that they needed God; in order to plead for His favor and love that they felt they had wandered away from.
Lastly, it might be argued that the wearing of a symbol goes against Scripture regarding not shouting your prayers or disfiguring one’s face in order to show how pious one is. While for some reason no one has ever argued with me against the observance of Ash Wednesday referring to this, the argument has weight. Jesus tells us to go into our inner closet and pray, and to not disfigure our faces to show how much we “love God” – He tells us rather to anoint ourselves with oil and pray the Lord’s Prayer in secret. The Bible also tells us to not observe the “moons and Sabbaths” of the Jews…and several other things that appear to argue against observing Ash Wednesday. However, the observance of “moons” etc were meant to separate Christians from observant Jews and have no place in separating Christians from one another. Ash Wednesday does not do that; on the contrary, it brings us together in common practice. The ash cross on our foreheads is not the same as standing on a street corner yelling at people while covered in ashes – it does not draw attention to our false faith and pride. On the contrary, it reminds us of our own shame. The ash cross also provides a quiet and intimate way to calmly and lovingly share our faith – if someone asks about it. If you go to the supermarket after the service and walk up to random people and tell them what a pious Christian you are and show off your cross, I would agree that is against what Jesus was saying. The simple wearing of a cross does not do the same thing. Symbols are powerful – and a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful way of remembering something powerful about God’s grace.
Because the ashes are not only a reminder of our mortality, our brokenness and shame, they are also a reminder of the grace of God in Christ. The shape they are in reminds us of the instrument of our salvation – the Cross of Christ. Being burned from the palms waved in the Triumphal entry last year, they remind us of Christ’s Kingship over our lives. The words spoken as they are “imposed” (remember that receiving the ashes is always completely voluntary) – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” remind us not only of our mortality, but the call to immortality – the grace that God has shown us in Jesus that results in eternal life…we will die – but we won’t.
As with so many of the ancient services and ceremonies of the Church, Ash Wednesday is paradoxical – it is sad and solemn, but also joyous and wonderful. It reminds us of the reason for Christ – and of our joy in Him. Amen…