Ashes & Dust: their meaning in today’s world

Ash Wednesday (February 22 this year) has been observed by the churches of western Christianity since the early middle ages.  It fell out of use in some Protestant churches after the Reformation but seems to have become more common among them over the last few decades.  Also increasing in popularity is the practice of “Ashes to Go.”  Clergy take ashes to street corners, bus stops, railway stations, etc., offering them to anyone with the admonition, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

It’s made me wonder what the significance of a smudge of ash on one’s forehead means to the increasing numbers who receive them while church attendance declines.  Does the imposition of ashes appeal to the spiritual but not religious?  Is it sort of a fun temporary tattoo or a toy badge of implied piety?  Maybe, for just a moment, it is recognition of one’s mortality in our advertising age of eternal youth and ways to live longer. I wonder.

Holy scripture records that throwing ashes on one’s self was an ancient sign of appearing in prayer before God, stripped of all pride and pretension, to submit to God’s mercy in whatever way God chose to be merciful.  I don’t know what happened in the early church.  Eastern Christianity never picked up on the practice of imposing ashes on the first day of Lent.  By the ninth century, it was common practice in the West. In an age of plagues, untreatable diseases, high infant and maternal death rates and short lives, it was probably not a significant reminder of one’s mortality. Death was the stuff of daily life.  I suspect it was understood, if understood at all, as a sign of promise that even as one returned to dust God’s promise of salvation remained the greater truth.  It should have humbled princes _fat chance that. No doubt serfs were reminded that they were unlikely to ever get out of the dust bin of society’s lowest level., but Go loved them anyway. Imposition of ashes introduced forty days of somber penance in which the ordinary delights of life, few as they were, were put on the shelf, replaced by reflection on how much God in Christ Jesus had done for them, worthless sinners though they were.  No one knows how diligent they were, but human nature suggests diligent enough not to be publicly outed for non compliance.

The imposition of ashes in our day is accompanied by an invitation to observe a holy lent through self-examination, repentance, self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.  It’s worth noting that repentance is mostly about turning to a new and better way of life: one that is more grateful, merciful, patient, kind, honest and faithful.  Self-examination is not self-condemnation but a recommitment to greater honesty with one’s self about one’s self, the good as much as the bad, and most of all, one’s place as a beloved child of God in God’s family. Self-denial, therefore, is not about giving up candy, wine, eating out or some other trivial thing.  It’s about. making room for long periods of prayerful conversation with God, and reflection on the meaning of holy scripture for you in your life.  You don’t have time for an hour of prayer and study each day?  Sure you do. You have time for an hour of television, internet scrolling, drinks after work, coffee and chit-chat.  It’s not much of a sacrifice to put some of that in storage for forty days. Make room for more time with God.  Who knows? It could become a new habit and better life.

Maybe that’s all too much.  If nothing else, let the ashes on your forehead remind you that life is best lived when it’s lived to the fullest as one of God’s beloved.  Each day’s fullness will vary.  Good and bad, light and darkness, joy and tears come to us all.  That’s life.  Living the fullest as you are able, always trusting that you are beloved of God, cannot lead anywhere but to a better life of greater happiness.  Working on that for forty days is a good way to begin, or to begin again.

1 thought on “Ashes & Dust: their meaning in today’s world”

  1. Oh, I like what wrote:

    If nothing else, let the ashes on your forehead remind you that life is best lived when it’s lived to the fullest as one of God’s beloved.

    ..that in spite of our mortality and imperfecttion(s), we will live forever….as God’s beloved…

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