Once again my life has been graced by Twitter (the best of the social media platforms). This morning a string of 140 character posts reminded me that today, March 5th, is Ash Wednesday (This post was written for Ash Wednesdsy 2014); the first day of Lent. Where would I be without Twitter?
Lent, lest you forget, is the 40 day period of preparation and simplicity that precedes Easter. In recent years it’s become a bit of a novelty; with people give up certain pleasures to experience something of the sacrifice that Jesus experienced. On it’s good days, it’s a great exercise. On it’s weaker it turns trite and silly:
I'm giving up cream in my coffee so I can remember the crucifixion of my Lord.
Um, okay. Sure.
Now, as for Ash Wednesday, as the “Twitter-verse” reminded me this morning, it begins this 40 day Lenten journey. But while I knew this (or, at least, I think I did), what I didn’t know was what the day signified. What is Ash Wednesday? Why call it “Ash”? And what do people do on the day? As it turns out, and as is so often the case with these traditional practices of the church, the meaning behind it is really wonderful.
As you would imagine, the day is intended to help the church enter into the season before them. It’s a day of quite and humility. And it’s a day where - hence the name - the church marks itself with ashes. Usually in the form of a cross, ashes are swiped on the foreheads of the faithful, while two verses are recited:
Dust you are and to dust you will return.
The kingdom of God has come near, Repent and believe the good news.
So, why the ashes? Well, the verses give the key. As the first verse is recited, the person is reminded of their place in the universe. That while a child of God, they are also small, finite, and humble. They are, in a word, “dust”. For a time they arise, out of the carbon of the world, but in the face of the infinite, they are but a blip.
From dust they came, and from dust they will return. And as the verse is pronounced, the swipe of the ash across the forehead re-enforces this truth. No matter how great we might think we are, in reality, we are dust. And because of this, we are in need of something greater. We are in need of life. We are in need of the one that Lent is pointing us toward.
But this recognition is just the first step. The second verse reminds us that we are also to be people of repentance. That as we recall our finiteness, we also recall how prone we are to shortcomings and sin. How daily we contravene ourselves, our creation, our neighbour, and our God. And how in each of these arenas we need to repent and believe the forgiveness of God that, as Lent reminds us, has come in the person of Jesus Christ.
And once more, the ashes help reinforce the message. In a cultural practice long forgotten, the scripture often mentions how people, caught in the wrong, would mark themselves in ashes, while sitting in sackcloth (the most meager of coverings). The sackcloth and ashes were an outward sign of contrition; a visible acknowledgment that they had wronged and were seeking the forgiveness of the offended party. And it’s this ancient practice that the marking with ash is intended to invoke. An outward sign, acknowledging that in our finiteness, we have often wronged, and are in need of forgiveness. The forgiveness of ourselves, creation, our neighbours, and our God. The forgiveness that comes through the sacrifice of the Son, remembered at Lent.
From dust to dust...
Repent and believe...
And so begins the journey to Easter.