The Many Lessons of Ash Wednesday

Why an ancient—and strange—tradition still has a lot to teach us.

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?

"Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

These people were celebrating Ash Wednesday, an ancient Christian observance of sin, suffering, penitence and redemption.

But—and this is the obvious question—why?
No where in the Bible does it say "And then thou must takest 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 ...

"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).

Some sources place the current tradition of Ash Wednesday back in the 10th century. Regardless of precisely when
it started, much of the worldwide church will observe Ash
Wednesday today. But what can we learn from such an ancient (and, let's
be honest, strange) practice?

Quite simply: A lot. For 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 worshiping Him as our Lord and King—to
basically ignoring His existence.

"Repent, and hear the good news" (Mark 1:15).

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 three Scriptures traditionally said
to people as they receive the ashes on their foreheads (those verses
are the headers of this article). 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.

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