Lent is beginning soon, and for years, heck for my entire life, I have blindly practiced the different rituals and rites leading up until Easter Sunday with no freaking clue what any of them actually mean, let alone why we as modern churchgoers even do them in the first place. Hey, how appropriate that lent begins THIS Wednesday, so why not start with Ash Wednesday!
My church always rings in the Lenten season with its annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake supper. Staffed by junior high and high school students, people from the congregation can pay like $5-$10 to get all they can eat Pancakes, bacon, and sausage. But in actuality, the message behind Ash Wednesday was not highly emphasized. I only knew that Ash Wednesday existed because my catholic friends growing up would show up on the day after my pancake binge with ashes on their foreheads. In my recollection, I can’t say as to whether or not my church did the ashes ritual, but regardless of the outward rites, this day has incredible Biblical significance drawing back to the Old Testament.
Some might say that the use of ashes in a religious ceremony or rite draws from Jeremiah 6:26, which states:
“O my people, put on a sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”
However, this is not the only example of the appearance of ashes in the Bible. Such a rite appears in Daniel 9:3 and 1 Maccabees 3:47 and 4:39. In general, the using of ashes in a religious rite was used to symbolize the expression of mourning the dead. With this in mind, one might be able to assert that Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for previous mis-steps and faults on top of mourning the 40 days leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; this is the time when Jesus was sent into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (As shown in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13)
But hold on! Why do we do this? What is the point of marking our bodies with ashes on a Wednesday in either February or March? It can be said that the placement of ashes on one’s forehead acts as a public admission of sin, but it didn’t begin that way. Historically, the use of ashes was a matter of private devotion, but slowly it came to stand for a more public admission of guilt, and also as a way for fellow Christians to recognize one’s sins and pray for the state of their soul.
Interestingly enough however is the location of the ashes on the body. Think about it. The ashes really could go anywhere, but the minister or priest selects to put the ashes on one’s forehead, often in the shape of the cross. This is the precise spot where the holy water is placed during a traditional baptism. So in one rite, you are cleansed of your sins and brought into communion with God, and in the other, you are also being cleansed, but in an entirely different way – through the public exhibition of one’s sins and guilt. By bearing the sign of the cross drawn in ashes, we are able to admit our guilt and sin to the world, all the while still displaying the sign of our collective faith.
Tomorrow, I have the advantage, privilege even of doing the Gospel reading during tomorrow’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service. The reading comes from Matthew:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full…Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What I don’t understand about the chosen reading is its significance/pertinence to Ash Wednesday. Matthew warns us against doing things just for their outward value and for the praise of those on earth. Instead, we are supposed to “give in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” If this were to be true, then why wear ashes on our foreheads in the first place? Isn’t the ash an outward sign of devotion or faith? I wonder that myself, but if we follow the line of thinking I brought up earlier, then no, it is something entirely different. The ashes are not meant to symbolize a devotion to God and Jesus; rather, they are the admission of guilt, suffering, a way for us to repent our sins and shortcomings to the world. We aren’t cocky for wearing ashes – rather, it is supposed to be a humbling experience, a way for us as churchgoers (or Christians) to confess to the world that we aren’t holier than thou as everyone thinks we are. We are subject to temptation and sin as much as the next person, perhaps even more so; we hold ourselves to a higher standard, which means that when we fall, we fall further and harder. We want to be better and less subject to the same faults that everyone else succumbs to, but in the end, we are no better. The ashes symbolize all that – that we are still human, still subject to hurt and sin and defeat, but in the end, we ask for forgiveness for all that in the hopes that God will love us again, the way He loved us before we were screwed up.
So. Will I be wearing ashes tomorrow as a sign of my sins? Maybe, but probably not. I know that I have sinned and screwed up. I don’t need ashes to prove that, and what is more, I don’t need the world to know that. What I do is between me and God, and only God can cleanse me of my screw ups and make me whole again. But with this in mind, I completely understand why the ashes exist. It is one thing to confess in your head, but it is yet another thing entirely to confess in public, with your shame out there for all the world to see and judge.
But at the same time, I give those who are going to wear ashes tomorrow a heck of a lot of credit, as they are embarking upon a journey full-heartedly; they are showing their full commitment to their faith and declaring it out in public for all to see. I am not sure that I am that courageous yet, or that wearing ashes is the right thing for me, but I can’t wait to see Smith’s campus teeming with ash-wearers, visually shouting out their sins, guilt and desire for repentance for the rest of campus to see.
Kudos to you, Ash-wearing Smithies! You go girl!