Some answers to questions about the day that marks the start of Lent, the penitential period before Easter
Is Ash Wednesday new to you? It’s been around for millenniums but I confess it still feels new to me. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition where it was celebrated and although the church I’ve been worshipping in for decades has services on Ash Wednesday, last year was the first time I stood in line and got a cross of ashes on my forehead. What’s it all mean?
Think 40. Lent is the penitential period before Easter, commemorating the 40 days Jesus wandered in the wilderness after he was baptized and before he began his ministry. Because he fasted and prayed in this period, people often refrain from eating certain foods or take on a spiritual challenge. So count back 40 from Easter–skipping Sundays because Sunday is a feast day–and you’ll land on Ash Wednesday.
2) Why ashes?
In the Old Testament, ashes were used as an expression of grief and repentance. The prophet Jeremiah urged Israel, “gird on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son…” Daniel turned to God, “pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” In the typical Ash Wednesday service, the words from God to Adam and Eve when they are kicked out of the garden of Eden are usually repeated, “…you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
3) Where do the ashes come from?
In most traditions the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday are saved and then burned many months later. Some churches add oil to the mix so they will stick better. But the symbolism of recalling Christ’s last triumphant entrance into the Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week makes these bits of ash more than something you’d garner from a random fire. They are the ashes of our hopes and fears.
4) Why the sign of the cross?
To be marked by the cross is a powerful thing, a reminder of Christ’s crucifixion, His sacrificial death. To wear the cross on your forehead is a way of saying, “Hey, this is Who I belong to and Whom I pray to.” On Ash Wednesday we remember how God became human so that we humans could become more like God.
5) Why mark the day?
Like I say, it always takes me by surprise. I’ll see someone with a smudge on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, and my first instinct is to want to say, “Can I offer you a Kleenex?” Then I see more smudges and realize they’re cross-shaped and remember what day it is. I don’t think God is taking roll up in heaven to see who does and who doesn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday. But spiritual days on calendars are meant to help us, to make us consider our faith. They put God on the agenda.
Listen to the age-old biblical words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Feel the mark of the cross. Know that you are God’s and God is in you. And then begin your own Lenten journey of prayer through the wilderness of this world, leading to the glorious message of new life. Happy Ash Wednesday!