Since tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the Season of Lent, I thought I’d do a short note today on the custom of placing ashes, in the form of a cross, on our foreheads in recognition of our sinful nature and our personal need for repentance.
The custom of having ashes placed on foreheads dates back at least to the 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon Abbot Aelfric (955-1020), in his Lives of the Saints, notes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and the New that the 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 the Lenten Fast.” This quotation confirms what we know from earlier sources, that throughout the Middle Ages, ashes were sprinkled on the head, rather than anointed on the forehead as in our day.
Ashes are imposed upon the penitent on Ash Wednesday with words recalling God’s word as recorded in the 3rd Chapter of the First Book of Moses, known as Genesis: By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return”. These words were spoken, of course, following Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
So then, the imposition of ashes is intended as an acknowledgement that we are indeed but dust (or ashes), and to dust we shall one day return. The ashes serve as an outward and visible sign of our humbleness and an acknowledgement of our sinful natures. Worn in that manner, the ashes do not signify our fasting (another Lenten practice).
I mention fasting at this time, since some oppose the imposition and wearing of ashes in good conscience due to the following words found in the 6th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel … 16 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” These words of Jesus follow His teaching of what we know as The Lord’s Prayer.
So, while Lent is a season of fasting and abstinence, if we were to accept the imposition of ashes as a sign of that fast we would be in direct opposition to the word of God. However, if we accept those ashes as a sign of our own mortality (which requires more than a little humility), then our actions hearken back to the word of God found in Genesis.
Whether to accept the imposition of ashes or not is a most personal decision, and one that each Follower of the Way needs to individually make. Accepted in the manner they are imposed, I find no contradiction to the clear teachings of the Christ.
Please do worship with us tomorrow, as we begin our Lenten journeys together. Ashes on our foreheads or not, please accept this bidding to keep a holy and penitential Lent as we prepare to follow the Son of God ultimately to Golgotha and then on to the Resurrection.