Many of our rituals, whether of daily living or of worship, have lost much of their original meaning over the years. For example, hot cross buns are now available all year round, instead of being specially baked just for Good Friday. But the ritual used on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the six weeks of preparation for Easter, still retains its ability to bring us up short by its starkness and simplicity.
The priest marks the forehead of each participant with black ashes in the shape of a cross, which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off. As the ashes are being applied, words similar to Genesis 3:19 are said: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. As Giles Fraser puts it in his article “Intimations of mortality”, in these days when we have lost the art of speaking plainly about death, the liturgy for the beginning of Lent remains one of the most powerful proclamations of mortality.
But ashes are symbolic of penance as well as mortality and mourning, our Christian use of ashes deriving from the ancient Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head as a way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. Originally a sign of private penance, very early on in the Church’s history ashes became part of a public ritual at the start of Lent, although the use of ashes made from the palm branches of the previous year is more recent – only 12th century!
So we prepare for Easter by remembering both that we all must die and that God wants us to repent, so that he can forgive us and give us eternal life. Do join us throughout our preparation for Easter.