Ashes to Ashes…a history lesson

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.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(Prayer taken from the current Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday’s service and the imposition of the ashes)

DSC00797
(Master of San Francesco crucifix / Louvre Museum / Pais, France / Julie Cook / 2011)

Ash Wednesday, for Christians worldwide, marks the solemn period of the liturgical year known as Lent—the forty day time period which recalls Jesus’ time spent in the desert being tempted by Satan, as this was the precursor to his public ministry.

For Christians, Western and Eastern alike, Lent is the 40 day lead up to Easter.
(it should be noted however that the time period of Lent differs in both the Western and Eastern churches as they each adhere to a different liturgical calendar)
Lent is intended as a time of deep reflection, repentance, personal denial, and remembrance. For many, Lent is marked by the Ash Wednesday church service which most likely involves, for those in attendance, the imposition of ashes administered to the forehead.

The imposition of ashes has its roots in ancient Jewish belief and is based on various passages from the Old Testament with the foremost being taken from Genesis 3:19
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

(NIV)

The phrase, “from dust you came and to dust you shall return,” is also a key prayer from The Rite of the Burial of the Dead, the Book of Common Prayer:
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God, in his wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself
(Prayer to be said at the graveside for the burial of the dead taken from
The Book Of Common Prayer, 1789 edition)

It is the belief that we, the descendants of Adam, who God formed from the dust of the ground, would all eventually return to that very beginning, of decayed dust. It is because of the Resurrection that the saved souls of the temporal bodies of dust will eventually rise upon the day of Judgement and ascend, just as Jesus had ascended, to Heaven and that of the eternal Kingdom.

The priest marks the forehead of those attending the Ash Wednesday service not as a symbol to be worn with pride–not as a “look at me, I’ve been to church on a Wednesday of all days and got ashes smeared on my head” kind of symbol, but one that goes much deeper.

The ashes are a symbol to remind the recipient, as well as any observer of such, of simply put, the sinful nature of man. There is no sugar coating of the facts here. This is the real deal acknowledgement. . .no politically correct business here. It is called as it is—sin— and it is displayed as such that all the world may take note and hopefully reflect— that we are sinners and we all fall short of the Glory of God.

Nothing more and nothing less.

Something more akin to the blazing red A as seen in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s tale of the Scarlet Letter–the ashes are a symbol of sin and we are all reminded that there is simply no way getting around the issue—we are sinners–sinners in desperate need of redemption. But in our tale of the wearing of the painful reminder of glaring offenses, we already know the ending of the story . . . redemption, love and hope are now available.
For Lent is a “season” of life offering to us all a powerful reminder of the importance examining our lives and of who we are and of our relationship to God as Creator and to His son as Redeemer, and of our desperate need for that very redemption.

The following excerpt, taken from Colin Buchanan’s book A to Z of Anglicanism,
is a nice bit of history regarding the use of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service”
Ash Wednesday.
The first day of Lent is called “ Ash Wednesday.”
It originated in the enrollment of catechumens for the period of
preparation leading to baptism at Easter, from which Lent itself is derived. Thus the day is also traditionally the beginning of Lenten fasting for the whole church.
The use of ashes within the liturgy, traceable in the West to before the 10th century, stems from the Jewish background of using ashes to express sorrow and self-humiliation (cf. Matt. 11.21), though there has usually been a secondary theme of a reminder of mortality (cf. Gen 3.19). The imposition of ashes was prohibited by the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which inaugurated instead the commination service. In Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer Books, the day was entitled “the First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday”—a clear indication that the old title was now viewed as misleading. The use of ashes has slowly reappeared in some Anglican provinces over the last 100 years under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and consequently official provisions is now made within modern Prayer Books, as in the Church of England’s Lent, Holy Week, Easter. There is a widespread custom of burning palm crosses distributed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday in order to provide the ashes for use on Ash Wednesday.

May we all take pause either this day, Ash Wednesday, or at some point during these next 40 days of Lent, as we are afforded (oh how many times are we afforded. . .) a time of deep reflection leading up to the celebration of Renewal and Hope known as Easter, to contemplate our lives lived, our mortality, our sins and of the deep endless love of the Father of all Creation and of the Son of Renewal and Hope—May this time awaken in our souls the knowledge that we all need so much more than what we can simply offer ourselves which are the limitations of this life— but may we rather look beyond ourselves, to that which is so much greater—for it is in only in the Redeemer that we may live.

6 comments on “Ashes to Ashes…a history lesson

  1. Lynda says:

    Julie, Lent is indeed a time for deep reflection and commitment to spending some “desert” time with our Lord. There are many resources to help us do that or we can reflect on the readings of the day or just spend more time in prayer. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of this deeper journey that I long to take every year. I must be intentional in setting aside time for this is the most important time of the year – the time of preparation for the Triduum. Thanks for this post.

    • I couldn’t agree more–I almost look forward to Lent as it helps to provide me with much needed internal discipline that always seems to wane and lapse throughout the year. Lent provides possibilities—yes there is denial, restriction, reflection, and often, for some, a bit of a painful journey— yet it is also a time of possibilities, of hope—not just death, as in the death of Jesus by way of the cross and of our own death also by way of that same cross—but there is the possibility of hope and of a renewed life in the resulting resurrection and eternal Life!!
      blessing and hugs!! Julie

      • Lynda says:

        I appreciate your comment in the light of what you are experiencing with your father at this time in his life and yours. Blessings and prayers for you in that journey.

  2. “Desert time!” What a good phrase! Spending time thinking about ashes can make the renewal of Easter and spring even more splendiferous. Great post, missy Cookie! Hugs and love, Natalie 🙂

    • Desert time is a good and necessary thing—painful, yes, necessary, yes 🙂 healing…of course 🙂
      I hope that your weather is moderating—today was close to 60 and bright sun—tomorrow, rain in the low 40s—oh this fickled weather!!!
      hugs and love—I think you will enjoy tomorrow’s post with its association to gardening. . .

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