The first year I attended a school where Gentiles were the overwhelming majority, I noticed a classmate with a strange smudge of black in the center of her forehead.
“Hey, you’ve got dirt on your face,” I said. I thought I was doing her a favor when I reached up to wipe it away.
She recoiled in horror. “It’s Ash Wednesday. That dirt is supposed to be there,” she insisted.
I soon noticed many of my classmates were sporting dirty foreheads. I had no idea what this strange ritual was about, but as a self-conscious eighth grade girl, I was glad I didn’t have to walk around like that all day.
I didn’t know it then, but I learned (as we all do at some point in our lives) that mourning is a core reality of our earthly existence. We live in a world shaped by the effects of humanity’s disconnection from God. That disconnection manifests itself in loss, sickness, and death. Whether it is a generalized awareness of our brokenness or a specific grief after the death of a loved one, Lent interrupts our regularly scheduled lives to reconnect us with the deepest need behind our pain: communion with God.
The act of kneeling to be marked by ashes, a practice that begins the season of Lent on what is known as Ash Wednesday, is a somber physical expression of humility. Ashes in Scripture are an outward sign of mourning or repentance (see, for example, Job 42:6; 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1, 3; Isaiah 61:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Ezekiel 27:30; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 11:21). The Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes an Ash Wednesday liturgy that offers participants a way to pray their desire for spiritual recalibration with both words and actions:
[The officiant reads the following words:] Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
Silence is then kept for a time, all kneeling. If ashes are to be imposed, the officiant says the following prayer.
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. The ashes are imposed with the following words.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Excerpt from Moments & Days by Michelle Van Loon
People rarely slow down to experience their days, and so they feel rushed through life even as they begin to suspect that life lacks significance. By introducing (and reintroducing) us to the feasts and festivals of the Bible, as well as the special celebrations of the Christian calendar, Moments and Days restores a sacred sense of time throughout our year, enriching our experience of each “holy day” and enlivening our experience of even the most “ordinary time.”