This was originally going to be part two of my Jesus and the Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins Part Deux, but since tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, I thought I’d give myself a break and write about that instead. I was up late last night working on it and I realized, “hey, this is crap and I don’t want it to go out yet!” so here we are. If you are like me, an evangelical that did not get into high church or any Christian calendar holidays outside of Christmas or Easter until you were well into your thirties, and still have less than a helpful idea of what is going on around Ash Wednesday, then this post is for you.
Normally I can muster up the, “well Ash Wednesday is about remembering that one day we will return to the dust from which we all came” and I think that can be enough. But since I work for the ELCA, I feel pressure that I should have a bit of a better idea what is going on, and why I will be sitting in that service tomorrow night at 7pm. After all, this is one of my favorite services and times in the church calendar. I can sit and ponder death all day and not be the weird one in the room, and for some that see that, my Memento Mori tattoo is fitting.
So, if you were to search the ECLA’s website about what the ashes are for, you may find this helpful printout. According to them, “Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday of the seventh week before Easter and the first day of Lent.” It goes on to say that the ashes used on the forehead are not only an outward expression of repentance but a tradition that Christians adopted from Judaism as seen throughout the Hebrew Bible as an, “external mark of penitence“. The printout goes on to state the ashes represent a number of things, and to pull a few:
- Ashes remind us of God’s condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam, “Dust you
are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
- Ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used anciently in the absence of
soap. Even on Ash Wednesday. . . we receive ashes in the form of the cross, the same symbol placed on our bodies with water in our baptism. Even in this ashen mark of death, we anticipate the new life of Easter.
- Ashes remind us of the shortness of human life
Ash Wednesday is a time that marks the start of Lent, the 40 day lead up (technically 46 but for some reason we don’t count Sundays) to Easter. This season is a space for creating space to remember what will come. Cremation or other, we will all someday return to ash or dust. This is what is so frustrating about coming into an inherited church (or mainline) from evangelicalism. There was no space for holding this tension of celebrating life, while making space for death.
The focus I am used to leading into Easter, while working in the church, was bright lights, colors, and a focus on the empty tomb. Maybe the Sunday before Easter there was something said on the death of Jesus, but it was always in anchor that the afterlife was something we could focus on. He had been resurrected, and because of that, we can focus on the fact that this world no longer held its grip on us. But after years of living in this, the hollow theology it offers without death, is meaningless.
Ash Wednesday is the start of that created space in this season. A time when we remember we came from God, and one day, we will return to God. Considering the past few years surviving a pandemic, everything going on in the world that is being reported, and our kid coming in April, tomorrow will be a space filled with tension.
Memento Mori my friends. May you make space tomorrow, and in the days to come to remember from dust we came, and to dust we will return.
Grace and peace.