Monday, February 8, 2016

Roots of Ash Wednesday: Spreading Humility Around

I'm struck by the sense of solidarity with all sinners that Ash Wednesday has come to reflect


ROOTS OF ASH WEDNESDAY. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the beginning of 40 days of prayer and fasting leading up to Holy Week and Easter. I came across a few paragraphs by Stuart Malloy that put the ashes we mark on our foreheads on this day into perspective. Malloy writes:

“Ashes marked on the forehead of worshipers were not always given to everyone, but only to the public penitents who were brought before the church. Much like Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet letter, these open and notorious sinners were marked publicly with the sign of their disgrace.”

IDENTIFYING WITH THE PENITENT. “As time went on, others began to show their humility and their affection for the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the number of penitents grew so large that the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday.”

IF YOU ONY KNEW… Malloy continues: “We who will bear the ashes upon our foreheads stand with those whose sins may be more public, but not, according to the Scriptures, more grievous to the heart of God. And so we make our confessions. . . . If you only knew the secrets of my heart, if you only knew the sins that I am capable of contemplating, if you only knew some of the schemes I have considered – and of course God does know – then you would know that I, too, am a sinner.”

THIN LINE, EARNEST PRAYER. He concludes: “Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).”

BLESSING OF THE ASHES. Here is the blessing often uttered just before foreheads are marked in ashes with the sign of the Cross:

“May these ashes be to us, O God, an acknowledgment of our wrongdoing and our acceptance of your forgiveness. In these ashes are our prejudices, our impatience, the times we have turned our backs on the suffering of others, our neglect of the environment, our indifference, our materialism, our greed, our hypocrisy, our envy…all of our sins. In these ashes of repentance are the seeds of our forgiveness and our transformation. For God always accepts us and forgives us. Through our repentance and forgiveness comes transformation. May God create within each of us a clean heart and a new and right spirit.”