If you’re like me, you grew up without much familiarity of the church calendar. You’d probably heard of Advent (or even celebrated it), and you’d probably heard of Lent, even if it just meant your Catholic friends couldn’t eat meat on Friday.
But then there was that one day, usually in February or March, when you’d see people all over town with little black smudges on their forehead. What was that about?
These people were celebrating Ash Wednesday, an ancient Christian observance of sin, suffering, penitence and redemption.
But — and this is the obvious question — why? Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “And then thou must taketh the ashes and make a cross on thine head whilest thou bewail thine sinfulness.”
However, the Bible does talk a lot about sackcloth and ashes. People throughout the Old Testament did this when they really wanted to get God’s attention — or when they had something so huge to mourn that it only seemed appropriate to destroy their garments and cover themselves in dirt. Have you ever stopped to think about how strange that must have looked to a surrounding culture? When some nutcase began to tear his or her garments and smear ashes on his or her face?
So maybe making a tiny cross isn’t so strange after all …
Some sources place the current tradition of Ash Wednesday back to the 10th century. Regardless of precisely when it started, much of the worldwide church will observe Ash Wednesday now. But what can we learn from such an ancient (and, let’s be honest, strange) practice?
Quite simply: a lot. The hidden lessons of the day have much to offer Christians in any age.
First, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. There’s plenty to be said about Lent, but in a nutshell, it’s a time when Christians all over the world and all throughout history willingly forgo something unsinful (that part’s important) for 40 days — they do this to refocus on Christ and to somehow mysteriously participate with the sufferings and temptations of the Christ (remember His 40-day temptation by Satan in the desert?).
So Ash Wednesday kicks off this ancient discipline by reminding us just why we need to refocus on God. And it reminds us how lost and sinful we are on our own. It’s no coincidence that Lent culminates in Holy Week. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the sin in our lives that required Christ’s Incarnation — and His eventual death.
One of the more meaningful aspects of Ash Wednesday stems from where the ashes actually come from. If you’re familiar with the Christian calendar at all, you know Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter — it celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when people waved palm fronds and shouted “Hosanna!”
In order to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday, the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and mixed with a little oil. And in this lies perhaps the most meaningful subtext of Ash Wednesday. If Palm Sunday represents our praise and adulation for God, Ash Wednesday represents the knowledge that that adulation has turned to dust: In a year’s time we’ve forgotten Him, we’ve sinned against Him and fellow humans and most of all, we’ve made something great (our love for God) into something dirty. It’s a powerful reminder to us of how quickly our hearts can turn from God — shouting “Hosanna” and worshipping Him as our Lord and King — to basically ignoring His existence.
So what can you do on Ash Wednesday, especially if you go to a church that doesn’t observe this part of the Christian calendar? You can still remember the lessons of Ash Wednesday, even without the ashes (though then you might just want to call it “Wednesday”).
Traditionally, this day has been one of the days Christians all over the world mark with fasting and prayer. So consider fasting from a meal or something else (as you’re physically able) on this day and spend some time in silence with God.
Above all else, regardless if you go to a formal service or not, use this day the way it’s meant to be used. Let yourself be reminded of your sin and brokenness. It’s not pleasant and it might involve some suffering, but instead of pushing away the thoughts of things you’ve done (or left undone) against God and others, accept them and repent. Then receive the forgiveness of God.
You can also meditate on the Scripture to remember how we are dust, how we must turn away from sin and that there is good news.
Finally, remember today that, like all of us, your praise to God can (and has) turned to ash this year. Take this day and be reminded to restore God to the place He belongs: first in your heart and first in your life. And then carry that knowledge out of Ash Wednesday and into the rest of the year.