On Ash Wednesday, millions of Christians around the world engage in the ancient ritual known as “the imposition of ashes.” This service marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period, not counting Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Although the practice of using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to ancient Hebrew people, the Christian use of the ashes goes back to the 2nd century, and it was widely practiced by the 5th century.
We decided a few years ago to observe Ash Wednesday for the same reasons we observe Maundy Thursday in particular and Advent in general – we need help. As disciples of Jesus, we need the reminder of the costliness of our Easter celebration. Lent sets the believer on a sobering time of self-examination and repentance, to wait upon and prepare for the renewal given by God’s Spirit in the death and resurrection of our Lord.
The story is that every year after Ash Wednesday a pastor, from somewhere in Pennsylvania, puts the brass bowl containing the leftover ashes on his office desk. A church member, stopping by to chat, looked into the bowl and asked in horror, “Whose ashes are you keeping on your desk?” The pastor responded, “All of ours!”
Ashes on our forehead remind us that human life has limits, that it comes to an end, that we are all mortal. The ashes speak of the virtue of humility, of knowing our human limits and realizing that we all need God. The English word “humility” comes from humus, the Latin word for earth. The ashes are symbols of the earth, and a reminder that we are all creatures of the earth.
This year, because of COVID-19, will be a bit different. You are welcome to join us in person or online next Wednesday, February 17, at 6 pm. Students will help lead us in worship and the call for us to repent and prepare. But there will be one major difference this year. We will not impose ashes. Yes, we will have an Ash Wednesday service without ashes, but the call to repent, to “remember you are dust and to dust you will return” remains just as sobering and poignant.
“Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:1-4, NLT)