I remember the first time I saw someone wearing ashes on their forehead.
I was sitting in my high school in Shady Spring, W.Va., when a classmate came to school wearing a cross made of ashes. I had been attending church since I was old enough to “borrow” the microphone from the preacher as a young toddler to have my voice heard during a church event, but I had never seen the practice. It was shocking to see on Ash Wednesday, which to me at the time was just another day on the calendar.
That was this and this is now. What was once a day of shock has become one of the days of the Christian calendar I have grown to love and, more importantly, need. Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day in the Christian calendar that marks the beginning of the season of Lent. We will gather at Ogden Memorial United Methodist Church at 6 p.m., for a time of worship, prayer, and reflection. And, yes, we’ll participate in the imposition of ashes.
Now, I am sure you are asking yourself this question: What purpose does wearing ashes do for a Christian? Good question! I’m glad you asked.
To answer this question, we have to get to look at why we need Lent. In our increasingly secular world, Lent is a practice that gets lost very easily and misunderstood. We’ll reduce it to a practice of merely giving something up than about a time to truly reflect on who we are and whose we are.
Lent is a season that runs for 40 days (not counting Sundays). It begins on Ash Wednesday and runs until the evening of Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and reflection as we prepare our hearts to receive the good news that Jesus is alive.
Our practices surrounding Lent go back to the earliest days of the church. When communities of faith began to form throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, the weeks leading up to Easter was used to prepare new converts for baptism. It was a time of teaching, reflection, and prayer that would lead to an individual’s baptism on Easter morning.
Lent is about reflection and renewal our lives and community. That takes us up, now, to why we need Ash Wednesday. This holy day is all about reflection and renewal.
We reflect upon our humanity. This day reminds us that life is precious. As I look at my own life and the communities I’ve had the pleasure of serving, this is something I believe we all struggle with. We have a hard time with death and the fleeting nature of life, because it is a topic we ignore in our conversations. Our conversations typically turn to our families, jobs, and sports. Seldom do we engage conversations about death and the limits of life beyond funeral services.
Our inability to talk about our humanity limits our conversations about some important topics. It’s hard to talk about conserving our resources, for instance, if we are unable to recognize that we are only here for a short period of time and how there are people who will come after us. At the same time, it’s hard to even deal with grief if we are unable to talk about what death means for each of us.
Ash Wednesday, and its imposition of ashes, reminds us we are humans who were created by a loving God. Truly, as Genesis 2:7 reminds us as dust we came, as dust we will return.
This day also reminds us to seek renewal in our hearts and lives. The imposition of ashes, in scripture, was a sign of sin and mourning. Jesus says if people would have recognized what had been done in other places they would have placed ashes on their bodies (Matthew 11:21).
Ashes provide a visible connection to our human nature and sinfulness. It is a way to encourage spiritual reflection of our hearts and to contemplate who we are, our actions, and God’s desires for our lives. Ashes also remind us of our need of God’s grace and prepare us for deeper moments of reflection to come throughout Lent as we move towards the cross and the empty tomb. On this day, and season, we yearn to turn away from a life of disobedience and seek a life defined by God’s love.
It is why I love Ash Wednesday, because I need this day. I need this day, because I need that reminder of God’s love and desires for me, my family, my church, and the world. I need that reminder of my humanity and my call to care for one another.
So, if you see someone wearing ashes today I hope you will not have the same reaction I did 20 years ago. My prayer is it will lead you to reflect on who you are and whose you are in God’s love.