Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, already. If you're anything like me in years past, you've been walking down the street, or through the offices, and you've see someone with a dirty forehead and thought "Oh yeah - here again already."
Or maybe you're not like me, maybe you're one of the good Catholics who will actually have the smudged visage that reminds people like me what day it is. Its been interesting to poll some of my Catholic co-workers over the years to see what their knowledge level of the event actually is. I won't get into the results, but suffice to say I suspect most Protestants have even less of a solid grasp on the tradition.
Ash Wednesday (Latin: dies cinerum, lit. "day of ashes") is speculated to have its origin sometime around the 8th century AD, and as such it is naturally a tradition rooted firmly in the Catholic church (although its grown, within limits, beyond the Catholic faith, over the years). The actual act consists of the priest dipping his thumb into the ashes and placing them in the sign of the cross on each participant's forehead, whilst saying the words "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," or some similar phrase based on God's proclamation to Adam in Genesis 3:19.
The ashes are supposed to come from the burnt remains of the palms blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year (why the previous year, I have no idea - I suspect any more they use the Palms from the week before). They are also supposed to be sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. I have no idea whether the Catholic church at large still holds to these maxims on a strict basis, but I do know that where it is practiced among Protestants, the ash most likely is not the palms, nor watered nor fumigated (I base this on the knowledge that Protestants don't generally bless palms, use incense, nor consecrate water).
Apparently at some Ash Wednesday services, they conclude by wiping the ashes off, to symbolize forgiveness of sin, while at others, they leave them on, that the participant can carry the sign of the cross beyond the doors of the church.
The practice has its biblical basis in the Old Testament, when men used ash, sackcloth, the practice of fasting, and shaving of the head to publicly demonstrate mourning and/or repentance of sin. The Catholic term for this practice in general is penance, or penitence.
This is by no means a conclusive report on the event and its symbolism, but as far as I can deduce, the practice is meant to symbolize at least some of the following:
- We are all sinful, and as such will all die a physical death (doctrine of Original Sin)
- We should sorrow over our sins, and repent (lit. turn away from them)
- We are created from dust and sustained only by the breath of God (and will return to dust when the breath leaves our bodies)
- Christ's death on the cross attoned for all sin and therefore eternally nullified the Old Testament need for burnt offering
If the last one is true, it kind of makes the incense thing a little, well...
Verdict: I like the practice of Ash Wednesday, and will probably participate in it again this year. I think its a good way for Christians (be they Catholic or Protestant) to remind themselves of some important life concepts - a good way to put a spiritual speed-bump in the busy road of life. While I don't think that those who choose not to practice Ash Wednesday are any less spiritual for it, I think at least, for those like myself, it can serve a useful purpose - one of focus and reflection.
There's a good number of church traditions we still have today that have similar roots, and I hope to examine perhaps a few more of them in the near future, the next (logically), being the practice of Lent.
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