It’s hard to believe that Ash Wednesday has rolled around again. Add this to the list of things COVID has altered in significant ways. Tonight we should be gathering for worship and as part of our worship I should be brushing your hair out of the way so I can impose the sign of the cross on your forehead using a mixture of ash and olive oil. While we won’t be able to gather in person nor impose the ashes on your forehead, we will still gather to worship at 7:00 tonight livestreamed.
One may ask why do we do this ritual to begin with? Where did it come from and what does it mean? The Day of the Ashes began as a practice in the Catholic Church in the 5th Century. Marking one’s forehead with ashes began as a ritual in the church under Bishop Gregory the Great (590-604 BCE). The practice showed up in the Anglo-Saxon Church in the 10th Century and by 1091 was practiced throughout the western Christian churches.
As to what the practice means, it’s a biblical sign act from the Old Testament that was used to indicate penance and confession of our sin. Think about Job who sat in the ash pit covered with ashes and wearing sack cloth (Job 2:8, 42.6) or Jonah (Jonah 3:6). It also symbolized one’s mortality as a reminder of our creation out of the dust. And finally, it was used as a sign of sorrow. At first in the church it was used as an act for private devotion and confession. Eventually the church used it more publicly as part of the practice one might go through when trying to reconcile from some kind of sin or brokenness in one’s life. The sign of the ashes helped others pray for the person and sympathize as they made right their sinfulness. At some point it all got mushed together to use the public sign of the cross on the first Wednesday of Lent thus forming Ash Wednesday as we know it today.
Enough with the history lesson, but why are we still doing it almost 1000 years later? I believe it’s because it’s one of those rituals that is simple but makes a powerful connection to our very core. Every single one of us wrestles with our mortality as we lose a loved one or wonder what happens to us after we die. Every single one of us sins and breaks relationship with God and with one another on a daily, weekly, maybe hourly basis. And every single one of us holds those two things in common. So when we have that cross placed on our forehead or see a cross on someone else’s forehead, we connect with it at a deeply personal level.
While we won’t be able to practice this ritual in the same way this year and see a room full of brother and sister believers with crosses on their head reminding us we are not alone in this terribly hard journey we call life, we can still pause and reflect on what it means for us- with or without the cross.
I invite you to think about those words we say when we impose the sign of the cross- “From ashes you have come and to ashes you will return. Repent and believe the Gospel (Good News).” As we remember our mortality and that this body is just a gift for us to use for a season, we were formed out of the dust and it is to dust that our body shall return some day. It is the way of God’s creation. But our spirit is an eternal creation that forever longs to be in the presence of God. That’s where the repentance comes in. The call is to confess our sins and to turn towards God. When we believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, then we can trust that long after our earthly body is done, our spirit is reunited with God through Jesus Christ. Repent and Believe.
It’s such a powerful moment of self-awareness that we now have the next 40 days to take seriously the call to repent and believe. To work on understanding our mortality and that only one person can affect our mortality. That is Jesus Christ on the Cross. But only one person can affect our repentance. That is on us. Only we can confess the brokenness of our hearts and receive God’s forgiveness. No one can do that for us but us.
So on this Ash Wednesday where you may or may not be able to receive a sign of the cross this year, you don’t need the actual cross on your forehead to do what it calls you to do. Pray and reflect on your own mortality and the state of your life today. Pray and reflect on the state of your relationship with Jesus. Pray and reflect on the state of your relationships with others. If it’s not where it should be, then confess where you have sinned. And be so very grateful that the God we worship offers us, even longs for us to return into relationship and forgives us willingly. That is what is at the heart of this day. No matter what we have done, God will brush the ashes off of our forehead and replace it with a kiss.
Grace and Peace,