ASH WEDNESDAY, BEEN THERE, DONE THAT…
BUT WHY ASHES ANYWAY?
AS A SIGN OF REPENTANCE: In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, ashes are used as a sign of humility and repentance. People know that they have sinned before God and so they mark themselves with ashes. Ashes, in Jewish and Christian contexts, suggest judgement and God’s condemnation of sin.
AS A REMINDER OF MORTALITY: When we hear the words from Genesis 3, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded forcefully of our mortality and the words of the committal in the burial service, “…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” One day those words will be said over us; that doesn’t need to be morbid, but it is a powerful reminder that we are not God, and so Lent is time to give up our idolatry, even, maybe especially, of ourselves.
AS A SYMBOL OF CLEANSING AND RENEWAL: Ashes were once used as a cleansing agent in the absence of soap, and so they remind us that we need to be cleansed of our sin, as indeed we are in baptism. A further example of death and renewal is the custom of burning fields so as to destroy the old and prepare the new, to clear away the clutter of the past and in doing so to enrich the ground for a new future.
AS A VISIBLE SIGN OF BAPTISM, A GRACEFUL REMINDER OF WHOSE WE ARE: Baptism is a primary emphasis of Lent and ashes have sometimes been understood as penitential substitute for water as a sign of baptism; as water both stifles and refreshes, drowns and makes alive, so the ashes also tell of both death and renewal. Perhaps more importantly, the cross of ashes reminds us vividly that in baptism we were signed with the cross of Christ, forever, and that we always bear that sign on our brows. We belong to Christ, and so there is joy for the journey, not just of Lent, but of life.
NOW WE JOIN IN THE PILGRIMAGE OF LENT
LENT is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “springtime” and so is to be understood as the holy springtime of the soul, a time for preparation, planting, and growth.
Like the father of the prodigal son (this story is one of the Lenten gospel readings, last year), God invites us to return home. Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance, but repentance always understood in its most graceful sense: a turning away from death, and death-dealing habits and lifestyles, and a turning toward life, the abundant life given in Jesus Christ our Lord.
From a very early time in the history of the church of Christ, Lent was a time set aside for those people preparing for baptism (and originally they were almost all adults) to undergo instruction in the mysteries of the faith. They were then baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter, the first service of Easter, after sunset on Holy Saturday – in the Jewish worldview the new day begins at sunset, and so for the earliest Christians, all of them Jewish, Easter actually began on Saturday night.
The season of Lent is a period of time set aside to help all Christians prepare to remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord. Lent prepares us for the great events of Easter, the centre of our faith. Lent is not so much a chunk of the calendar as it is an opportunity for pilgrimage, for all of us who are baptized into Christ to remember that baptism and examine closely its relationship to our lives, to journey together with Christ to the cross where our sin is put to death, and to the empty tomb, where we are given new life in the risen Christ.
Signposts on the journey include the disappearance of the Alleluia and the Gloria, to remind us of the solemnity of the season. Traditionally, flowers are not included in worship spaces for the same reason. The colour of the season is violet or purple, for repentance. The season is 40 days long (excluding Sundays), even as Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry, and the people of Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness, preparing to enter the Promised Land.
Much of this material is adapted from ‘Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship’ Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979