Ash Wednesday

Why We Do What We Do

For more than ten centuries, Christians around the world have marked the beginning of Lent (the time of preparation for Easter) by getting their foreheads smudged with ashes in the sign of a cross. In the Old Testament (and other ancient spiritual traditions), ashes were placed on the body both as a sign of humility or mortality and a sign of repentance.  The prophet Jeremiah, for instance, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in ashes.” (Jer. 6:26) The season of Lent developed in the early church as a season of 40 days when the entire community fasted and prayed for the adults preparing for baptism at Easter.  The already-baptized also prepared to renew their baptismal vows at Easter.

Ashes on our foreheads help us enter that time of preparation by remembering who we are.  We remember that we are creatures of earth and mortal–that we are not God.  We remember (as we see ashes on the heads of others) that all human beings stand before God as mortal children, so we should neither think ourselves better nor worse than others. We remember that we are on a spiritual journey– that we are always growing and needing to turn away from sin and selfishness.  We remember that in baptism, we are marked by the sign of the cross.  We remember (as we see the ashes on others) that we are a part of the Body of Christ, and pray for the spiritual growth of brothers and sisters in Christ. The very heart of the gospel is the invitation to ongoing transformation.  May this Ash Wednesday be a time of re-commitment to the journey.

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