Today is dies cinerum, Day of Ashes, an ancient tradition that starts the Lenten or fasting period leading up to Easter. The earliest mention of the custom of Christianity is recorded in the general observances of the Synod of Beneventum in 1091. However, about one hundred years earlier, Aeflic, an Anglo-Saxon priest said in one of his homilies, “We read in the books of the Old Law and the New Law (Old and New Testaments of the Bible) that men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during this Lenten fast.” Worldwide, Christians are honoring their baptismal vows and participating in the Blessing of the Ashes.
On Ash Wednesday all the faithful are called to come before the altar to receive the blessing of the ashes before mass. The ashes are composed of the burned palm fronds from Palm Sunday the year earlier. As each person approaches the altar to receive the blessing of the ashes, prayers are recited as the priest or celebrant dips a thumb in the ashes and then makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one receiving the blessings.
A typical prayer recited during this blessing ceremony might be:
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
All that is not of God must die
All that is crushed will be restored
All that is lost will be made new
God may we repent of ways that do not serve you
And admit to the tensions that tell us where we need to change
Christ is coming walking towards the cross
God may we see you clearly
Pouring out love
Pouring out mercy
Pouring out peace
May we kneel before God in humble adoration
May we take up our cross and follow
And walk with Christ into the ways of life”
Ash Wednesday is a tradition honored by Christians, though not biblically commanded or required. It is a time to honor a devotion to a life based on following Christ Jesus’ path, and for devoting time to turn toward God in daily life with greater intention and focus on living more in peace, aligned to the grace of God in our lives, and to honoring our commitments to live as Christ Jesus taught us to--by his example and his words. However we understand our religious and spiritual traditions, the act of seeking forgiveness for those areas of our lives where we struggle, fall short, or come into conflict with our connection to the Divine, a time like Lent allows us to share with others in our communities to seek a closer walk on our shared spiritual paths.
For many years, Ash Wednesday was celebrated almost exclusively by the Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches. Now, however, more and more denominations and non-denominational churches are celebrating the Blessing of the Ashes. During this 40-day period. Nearly all religious and spiritual traditions practice some sort of fasting period. Christians have continued traditions practiced by Christ Jesus and his disciples, including fasting. In the next article, the history, traditions, and practices of Lent throughout the history and scope of Christianity will be covered.