Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had not realized Ash Wednesday was February 26th. I thought it was a week later. My friend said that he knew Ash Wednesday has something to do with Lent, but he and his wife had never belonged to a church which observed that holy day. I told him Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent on which the minister applies ashes to the foreheads of Christians in the sign of a cross to signify inner repentance. In this article, I want us to go deeper as we consider the history and meaning of this Christian holy day.
Ash Wednesday is first mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary which probably dates at least from the 8th century CE. One of the earliest descriptions is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric who lived from 955 to 1020 CE. In his Lives of the Saints, he wrote, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” (Aelfric then proceeded to tell the tale of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes and was “accidentally” killed several days later in a boar hunt!) This quotation confirms what we know from other sources—that throughout the Middle Ages ashes were sprinkled on the head rather than being anointed on the forehead as in our day.
As Aelfric suggested, the pouring of ashes on one’s body and dressing in sackcloth (a very rough and uncomfortable material) were an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning which reflects a very ancient practice. It is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Probably the best-known reference is found at the very end of the Book of Job. Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Other examples are found in II Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1,3; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Ezekiel 27:30; and Daniel 9:3. In the New Testament Jesus refers to the practice in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to your, Bethsaida! If miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
During the typical Ash Wednesday service today, Christians are invited to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes. The minister applies the ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead of each while speaking these words: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return” or “From the earth you are and to the earth you will return.” This second group of words are what God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Genesis story after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and had fallen into sin (Genesis 3:19). This pronouncement revealed to our first parents the bitterest fruit of their sin, namely death. Such words are intended to remind us on Ash Wednesday of our own sinfulness and mortality as well as our need to repent and receive God’s grace. The cross reminds us of the good news of God’s love poured out for us, sinners though we are, which provides us forgiveness of sin and the miracle of a new beginning.
Ash Wednesday, like the whole season of Lent, is never mentioned in the Bible. It can be a sincere practice depending on what is in our hearts, or it can simply be an external practice that is meaningless and for show. Jesus warned against such hypocrisy in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18) when he said, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”
The kind of fast and repentance Jesus had in mind and which is intended by the true spirit of Lent is made clear in Isaiah 58:5-7 where God says:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am.”
It still amazes me that words spoken over 2500 years in the past are as relevant and challenging today as they were in antiquity. The prophetic understanding of true religion has much to say to the greedy, arrogant, shallow, and prejudicial “faith” so popular in American culture today.
There is another aspect to the ashes representing the earth I want to consider as we round out the observance of Ash Wednesday and become aware of the comprehensive nature of the good news in Jesus Christ. Have you ever attended a funeral service when at the cemetery you heard these words: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust we commit (the name of the person) to the ground”? Of course, these words are based on what we read earlier from Genesis 3:19. The Book of Common Prayer used in Anglican tradition gives the complete quotation used by the minister as earth is ceremonially cast on the coffin: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother (name of person); and we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen”
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—these words speak to us on two levels. First, they remind us not only of our mortality but also that in death we are all the same. A thousand years from now all the people who die this year will be in the same condition. The most expensive tomb, the most elaborate casket, the most protective vault, the most sophisticated embalming, and the most beautiful make-up will not keep any of us from returning to the earth from which we came. Death is the great leveler.
However, these words also remind us of how connected we are to each other and to creation. Cosmologists tell us that we are literally made of stardust. The carbon within our planet which allows for life as we know it originally came from stars. We came from the earth; we are a part of a whole; and we are but one strand in an intricate, mysterious, and awesome web of life. That famous quote from the English clergyman and poet John Donne says it so well:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
But part of the good news of the Christian faith is this: Creation is not doomed to cosmic death and annihilation. The resurrection of Jesus in the first step in God’s great conspiracy to defeat evil and death and to raise the whole creation to a new, transformed, glorious life. And as this universe—as all of time, space, and matter—are transformed into the new creation, each of us will find our place in God’s world without end. We are raised from death as a part of a much larger whole—as part of a divine matrix with never-ending dimensions. Our destiny depends on the destiny of creation and upon the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love of God for Whom nothing is lost. In death we are one with all, and in resurrection we are one with all. With such interconnectedness, there is no place for arrogance, greed, strutting, competition, or condemnation of others or ourselves; but neither is there any place for despair, isolation, misery, or fear. John was absolutely correct: the good news is that “God so loves the world” (“cosmos” in Greek), and by God’s grace, each one of us has our place in that grand dream which transcends time and flows into eternity. So, when we return to the earth—earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust—may we who are already a part of a whole (though we rarely realize it and certainly don’t live accordingly) find our place as creation enfolds us as a part of her own–trusting that when the “last trumpet shall sound” and God raises this creation to new and eternal life, we shall not be forgotten but shall share in the glory God intends for all and for the whole; a glory that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived.