St Alban’s Episcopal Church
Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Ash Wednesday tomorrow, February 22 noon and 7 pm
Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent at St Alban’s noon and 7 pm with simple, quiet Eucharist
Ashes sign of mortality and penitence – and hope
It might surprise you to know that the universal practice of using ashes at the beginning of Lent didn’t begin until the 7th century. And not until the 11th was it considered to be normative for the whole church. But it has deep biblical roots – where ashes sprinkled by someone on top of his own head signified lament, grief, distress, or repentance. When, for example, Daniel saw the future destruction of Jerusalem in a vision, (9:3) he “turned to God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”
In later years, in some European countries, and in English-speaking countries, the liturgy began to direct that ashes be placed on foreheads instead of on their heads – Similarly, the anointing at baptism used to also be done on top of an infant’s head, but is now traditionally done of her forehead especially in the USA.
But there are good reasons for returning to an earlier practice. The very reading we use for Ash Wednesday suggests that we ought to fast without any visible sign – that our prayer and fasting should be secret. Of course, that refers to the risky practice of doing one’s penitence “for show”.
My feeling is that nobody actually receives the ashes on his forehead as a matter of “showing off” his piety. But what I do know is that most people immediately wash or wipe them off – partly for fear of seeming to be too “religious.” The majority of people I know who have talked to me about this do not “wear” them to work or out shopping.
During COVID the Catholic church urged clergy in the US to return to sprinkling ashes on the top of parishioners’ heads to avoid physical contact. That has been the traditional practice in most of Latin American anyway, and in other non-European, non-English-speaking cultures.
We will do that this Ash Wednesday as well. What if we re-understood the imposition of ashes as an act of secret penitence, of return, of beginning again – of grief for what we know we have done wrong: a genuine sorrow, and acted-out prayer, that is known only to God – that no one else sees?
No responses yet