Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday

So, today is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent.

Traditionally, everyone in the church wore ashes on Ash Wednesday. The palm fronds from last year's Palm Sunday were burned in the church on Wednesday morning, and then a priest would place a cross of ashes on every attendants head at the end of morning mass. The attendant wore the ashes throughout the day, and after sundown, returned to the church to have the ashes washed off. The ashes served as a sign to the wearer of his or her own mortality, and was a sign of mourning. The parishoner was in mourning not only for his or her sins, but also for the upcoming death of Christ on the cross.

I'm not sure why, but celebrating Ash Wednesday is much less popular for Protestants than it is for Roman Catholics. On Ash Wednesday, even now, many Roman Catholics will go to mass in the morning, and wear ashes throughout the day.

Three years ago, when I found out about the Catholic practice of wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday, I decided to do so myself. Because I am not Catholic, I didn't want to go to mass to have them placed on my head, so I just did it myself. That morning, I wrote down some sins that I have been struggling with, and burned them in a bowl on the porch. I then donned the ashes and went through the day. That day was a very powerful day for me. I was constantly aware of the ashes on my head, and was made constantly aware of my sins, and was therefore in near constant prayer. When I finally washed the ashes off at the end of the day, I felt the relief that I think we should feel when we realize just how deep our forgiveness goes.

Wearing ashes that day affected me so strongly, that I have taken to wearing ashes on every Ash Wednesday. In some ways, I feel stupid for wearing ashes, because my ceremony lacks the sacramental overtones of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church there is a big mass where the palm fronds from last year's Palm Sunday are burned in a sacramental dispenser and then the priest mixes in holy water and holy oil while saying four ancient prayers and then burns incense next to the ashes for two hours before he can begin dispensing them to parishoners. I put them on myself in the kitchen this morning after burning a piece of paper in an old coffee pot, but that's okay. Maybe my little ritual would be more meaninful to me if I went to church and had more ceremonially blessed ashes placed on me, maybe not.

In any case, wearing the ashes and fasting on this day help me to remember how fragile my life is, how dependent I am upon God, and how sinful I am. Though I don't usually see a whole lot of value in wallowing in your own sin and guilt, doing so one day out of the year seems, to me, appropriate. And so, today I'm wearing ashes again.

While these ashes might be helpful to me, and they may make me feel good the next day, I have to remember how useless this tradition really is. I have to keep in mind the words of God seriously, who through Isaiah wrote: "Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

The day these ashes serve to tell the world I'm pious instead of telling me that I'm sinful is the day I stop wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Hopefully, by the end of the day today, I'll be more conscious of things in my life that I need to change.

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