Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
(taken from the Book of Common Prayer)

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(ash / Julie Cook / 2015)

Ash Wednesday, in the Christian faith, marks the start of the Lent—the season the Church recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting, praying and being tempted by Satan in the wilds of the desert. It was the time just prior to marking the beginning of His earthly ministry.

Today the Christian faithful mark the 40 days prior to Easter with devout self reflection, prayer and fasting beginning with today’s Ash Wednesday Service. Lent is a time of spiritual house cleaning and cleansing.

The use of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service has been a part of the Christian Lenten service since the Middle Ages as ashes have long been associated as a sign of penitence. The ashes used during the service are the blessed and later burnt palm leaves from the prior year’s Palm Sunday Service and are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful as a remembrance that we are all dust and to dust we shall return–a phrase also used during the service for the Burial of the Dead.

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(image courtesy the Daily Herald)

The imposition of ashes was actually removed from the Anglican Ash Wednesday service in the mid 16th century as the Church (rather kingly leadership) felt it more important to focus on the Biblical curses God poured out upon sinners—As we remember this was the time of the English Reformation which had begun under the rule of Henry VIII—
All of which was further advanced under the short reign of his young son Edward.

Workshop_of_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_-_Google_Art_Project

220px-Portrait_of_Edward_VI_of_England

Eventually customs and “faith” swung back with a vengeance to the Catholic Mass with the installment of Henry’s eldest daughter Mary to the throne. Throughout the English Protestant Reformation the Church preferred to further examine and focus upon the grave sinfulness and unworthiness of man eschewing many of the traditional parts and observations of the Catholic Mass.

Maria_Tudor1

The practice of imposing ashes was officially added back into the service in the 18th century.

One part of the Lenten service which has withstood the test of time and the changing whims of King and Church and is also prominent in the Eastern Orthodox Service has been the reciting of the Miserere, better known as Psalm 51 (or known as Psalm 50 in the numbering of the Greek Septuagint)– One of the penitential psalms of David

In finem. Psalmus David, cum venit ad eum Nathan propheta, quando intravit ad Bethsabee. Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam; et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam. Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me. Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco, et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci; ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris. Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum, et in peccatis concepit me mater mea. Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti; incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi. Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor; lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam, et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis, et omnes iniquitates meas dele. Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis. Ne projicias me a facie tua, et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me. [14] Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui, et spiritu principali confirma me. Docebo iniquos vias tuas, et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae, et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam. Domine, labia mea aperies, et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam. Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique; holocaustis non delectaberis. Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus; cor contritum et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies. Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion, ut aedificentur muri Jerusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes et holocausta; tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The recitation of the Psalm would be followed with these final prayers. . .

MOST mightie God and mercifull father, which hast compassion of all menne, and hateste nothyng that thou haste made: whiche wouldeste not the deathe of a sinner, but that he shoulde rather turne from sinne and bee saved: mercifully forgeve us oure trespasses, receyve and coumforte us, whiche bee grieved and weried with the burden of our sinne: Thy propertie is to have mercie, to thee onely it apperteineth to forgeve sinnes: spare us therfore, good Lorde, spare thy people whome thou hast redemed. Enter not into judgemente with thy servants, which be vile year the, and miserable sinners: But so turne thy ire from us, which meekly knowlage our vilenes, and truely repent us of our fautes: so make hast to helpe us in this worlde: that wee may ever live with thee in the worlde to come: through Jesus Christe our Lorde.
Amen

TURNE thou us, good Lord, and so shall we be turned: bee favourable (O Lorde) he favourable to thy people, whiche turne to thee in wepyng, fasting and praying: for thou art a mercifull God, full of compassion, long sufferyng, and of a great pietie*. Thou sparest when we deserve punishement, and in thy wrathe thynkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lorde, spare them, and lette not thy heritage bee brought to confusion: Heare us (O Lorde) for thy mercy is great, and after the multitude of thy mercies looke upon us.
(pity in some printings)

Prayers from the Ash Wednesday Lenten Service, Book of Common Prayer 1689

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)

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(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.