Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Happy Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent!

I have always always faithfully attended Ash Wednesday services, as a Methodist and as a Catholic.  I have marched up there been marked and went on with life.  As a kid, I would wipe it off as soon as I walked out of church, as a teen I did the same, but as an adult I wear it as a badge of honor for the day.  But what does it really mean.  I have been told that it is our mark, showing that we are Christian.  I have been told that it is "just what we do."  But really, what is it, and WHY do we do this.  You have to admit it is a bit bizarre that we all faithfully march to the front and get ash smeared on our foreheads (yes, usually in a cross, but there are those big thumbed priests that give you a smear of ash from one side of your head to the other--admit it, we all secretly hope we don't end up in his line).  So I have been doing some research.  This year I am not giving my kids the generic answer that I always give them. 

"But M-oooo-m, why do we have to do this every year?"
"Honey, do you love God?"
"Yes, but it's weird."
"Did Jesus give his life for you?"
"Yes, but not with ashes on his head."
"Well, if you love God and the sacrifice of Jesus, you will just do this without another word!"
"Fine!  I'll go, but I will wipe it off before we go to the grocery store."
Yes, that's pretty much it, every year, with one or more and my ridiculous answer. 

According to the Catholic Update ashes were used in the practice of repentance even in the Old Testament.  I must admit, I have not been able to make it through the Old Testament, but it has been given numerous tries.  Maybe that will be something I can do for Lent....and beyond....I'm such a slow reader.  In Jeremiah, the people are told to "gird on sackcloth and roll in ashes."  Isaiah didn't like that practice, saying that didn't make a proper fast.  Daniel covered all of the bases.  He wore sackcloth, rolled in ashes and fasted.  The King of Nineveh took off his robe, dressed in sackcloth and sat in ashes after receiving Jonah's message.  Judith gives us our first look at ashes being strewn on heads at the temple, and the examples continue on into Maccabees and Matthew.  So, obviously, ashes have been well recorded in Bible history as a form of repentance.  I'm so glad we are not rolling in them at the foot of the altar!  I will make sure to tell my kids, if you don't like it on your foreheads, it could be all over your body and your could be wearing a feed sack to town.  That ought to get their attention. 

When did the Catholic Church begin the practice?  In the year 960, there is record of the sprinkling of ashes for Ash Wednesday.  Before that, people were either sprinkled or marked with ash as a sign of admittance to the Order of Penitents (this was the old way of confessing sin and doing penance--you were marked while doing a long term penance).  Toward the end of the 11th century Pope Urban II called for a general use of ashes for Ash Wednesday.  The 12th century called for the ashes to be from the previous year's palm branches.  Lent truly developed as a method for the entire church to pray for catechumens who are preparing for Baptism and for the members of the church to prepare for their renewal of Baptismal promises at Easter.  During the Middle Ages, this shifted to a remembrance of the passion and death of Jesus--repentance was a way to avoid punishment for sins not as a way to prepare for baptism.  Vatican II called us to shift back to our preparation for baptism and away from it being such an individual avoidance of punishment at death.  This is our time of conversion.  We are basically the living out the Old Testament.  We are called to confess and repent during Lent in preparation for Easter.  We receive our mark on Ash Wednesday, showing that we are making amends for our sins, so we can be pure and clothed in white as we renew our baptismal promises.

This year I will definitely look at the 40 days differently.  I will look at what I give up differently.  I will truly make this a time of conversion and preparation for my family.  This year will not be a usual Lent and Easter, where we "make time" for extra masses and think "oh no, it's Friday, what will I pack the kids for lunch?"  This will be our conversion and our time to turn back toward God in everything we do, and I hope it will be for you as well.  May God bless you in your journey and my family in our journey.

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