Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Like Advent before Christmas, Lent is traditionally a time of preparation and reflection. During Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of self-denial. The Monday Prayer strongly encourages the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, and there is no better time to begin than this day.
PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, AMEN.
SCRIPTURE: (from the Lectionary)
PRAYER FOCUS: IMPOSITION.
Ash Wednesday is a tradition in the Catholic Church. In recent years these services have become increasingly popular among Protestant denominations (in the United Methodist Church since 1979). We’d like to share some related discussion we’ve overheard, especially as it pertains to the placement of ashes on the foreheads of those who will attend today’s special church services.
Some people have argued against the practice, claiming that it could promote holier-than-thou attitudes, or smugness amongst the faithfully smudged.
Others have worried that the aftermath of the ritual would look a bit too much like a public display of piety–the kind that the Gospel of Matthew cautions against (Matt. 6: 1-8).
A third group counters the ashes could be a powerful symbol of how we grapple with our mortality, to participate in a sign of humility, to mark the traditional beginning of Lent. What is Ash Wednesday, after all, without some oily soot on one’s brow?
In our curiosity, we did some research on Ash Wednesday:
Ashes serve a dual purpose. First, they remind us of our mortality as we begin the Lenten Fast. Second, throughout the Bible, ashes serve as a symbol of repentance, sorrow, and humility. There are many cases in the Scriptures of people wearing ashes as a sign of penitence, often while also wearing sackcloth. In 2 Samuel 13:19, Tamar puts on ashes and tears her clothes as a sign of sadness and repentance. In Esther 4:1-3, after learning of the king’s decree to kill all Jews, Mordecai tears his garments, and puts on sackcloth and ashes. His fellow Jews do the same thing, as well as commencing a corporate fast. The prophet Jeremiah (6:26) urges his people to “gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes.”
The liturgical use of ashes is not a sacrament, even on Ash Wednesday. However, the ashes may be blessed according to various traditions, sometimes involving the use of Holy Water or Anointing Oil. Application of the ashes is usually called “imposition.”
Merriam-Webster gives the modern definition of this word as “something imposed, such as a levy or tax; an excessive or uncalled-for requirement or burden.” However the original meaning comes from the Middle French word “imposer” which, in turn, comes from the Latin “inponere”, meaning, quite literally, to put upon. To impose a mark upon another, such as ashes, marks the recipient as a slave or servant. In receiving the ashes, we agree to be put upon by Jesus Christ who died for us and become His servants.
And that seems fair to us.
It has become unacceptable in our modern culture to be put upon. It is even less acceptable to be seen as a servant. We see this expressed in our everyday language when we say “thank you”. The common response is no longer “you’re welcome” (acknowledging a debt of gratitude), but “no problem” (meaning, you didn’t impose on me, no need to feel indebted or guilty). We can’t imagine Jesus responding with the latter phrase when we thank Him in prayer. We were certainly an imposition to Him, and we certainly owe Him an eternal debt of gratitude. He just as certainly assures us, “you’re welcome.”
Receiving the imposition of ashes on Wednesday is an outward mark of an inward debt of gratitude. Like any ritual, we should be aware of its meaning before we undertake it. By receiving ashes on our forehead, we are declaring to the world that we are servants of the King of Kings, and eternally in His debt.
Praise God. He loved us before we knew Him. And it cost Him everything to redeem us.