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