Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ash Wednesday

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the ceremonies of Ash Wednesday and their meaning:

Q:  What is Ash Wednesday and what is the meaning of applying ashes to people’s foreheads on that day?  What reasons to churches have behind their decision to use ashes or not, and how does this custom fit with Jesus warnings in Matthew 6 about showing off one’s repentance, prayer, and good deeds? 

Ash Wednesday is the name that has come to indicate the first day of Lent.  It occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, and emphasizes the themes of sin, mortality, and repentance that carry forward throughout the season of Lent, which is a period of contemplation and often fasting that prepares for the celebration of Easter. 

The source of the name for Ash Wednesday comes from one of the customs associated with it—the application of ashes to those who attend that day’s services.  In Old Testament times, covering oneself with ashes was used as a sign of mourning or sorrow for sin.  In keeping with that Old Testament tradition, churches began centuries ago to use this as a way of marking the beginning of Lent, as it fits closely with its repentant character. 

A common tradition relating to the making of the ashes is to make them by burning the prior year’s palms from the Palm Sunday procession, and the ashes are usually mixed with a small amount of olive oil in order to achieve the right consistency for application.  Holy water may also added, such as in Roman and Anglican traditions of Christianity.  The traditional words which accompany the application of the ashes are “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” again emphasizing the themes of sin and mortality by echoing the words recorded in Genesis as being spoken by God to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin. 

In addition to the Roman and Anglican tradition, the use of Ashes is also fairly common among Lutherans and Methodists, as well as some portion of most denominations which observe the season of Lent.  A trend in recent years has been for even representatives of some traditions which have not typically observed Lent or other elements of the broader liturgical year to restore the traditions of Ash Wednesday as part of a renewed interest in the ceremonial heritage of the ancient Church.  It is rare, if not outright forbidden, in traditions which devalue ancient ceremony or reject it as merely human tradition. 

Some Christians do avoid the use of ashes at all because they perceive that it violates Jesus’ warnings about self-righteous displays in Matthew 6, while others, particularly among Roman Catholics, choose to wear their ashes for the remainder of the day after their application as a public testimony of faith in Jesus.  Others may receive the ashes, but remove them soon after in response to Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 6.  Some even see the receiving and immediate removal of the ashes as an excellent illustration that we are born sinful and deserve God’s punishment because we engage in actions which disobey God’s law, but that the sin has been washed away in Baptism, allowing all who trust in Jesus to forgive their sin to stand before God at the judgment in His righteousness and purity rather than their own death-deserving sin. 

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