Last night I returned home from a church service followed by a choir rehearsal, wearing a dark smudge in the center of my forehead, the sign of Ash Wednesday. This is the beginning of Lent, a period of reflection and in some cases fasting that prepares followers for Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. It’s an important day for Christians.
The Methodist churches of my childhood and youth didn’t make a point of observing Ash Wednesday. My Catholic friends did, though. It wasn’t until Betsy and I joined a United Church of Christ congregation 19 years ago that Ash Wednesday and its forehead ashes became part of our experience, and we have faithfully worn our ashes on that one night each year.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. A priest or pastor applies ashes in the shape of the cross on the believer’s forehead. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the ashes are applied, the priest or pastor says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes are made from palm branches that have been kept since the previous year’s Palm Sunday services, then burned. Some Protestant churches introduce variations on the practice. One collects scraps of paper on which worshipers have written down sins that they have committed and wish to confess. These papers are burned to create the ashes for Ash Wednesday, thus those receiving the ashes are wearing their sins, for a day at least.
When my pastor applied the ashes to my forehead last night and spoke those words, I was reminded of my mortality. Her sermon emphasized the point. We all die eventually. We don’t know the day or the hour, thus we should cherish every day and try to live as our faith has taught us to.