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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why Ash Wednesday?

Credit: Fernando Vergara

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a penitential church season intended to help Christians prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. It sets the tone whereby sinners are able to contemplate the events of Christ's passion, death, and third-day resurrection with humble and contrite hearts. Ash Wednesday is observed by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and some Protestant groups that have a "higher churchmanship."

The Eastern Orthodox do not have this custom. Instead they have Forgiveness Sunday when they remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Many Orthodox also attend Forgiveness Vespers on the eve of Great Lent. At this service they hear the Lord's teaching about fasting and forgiveness and enter the fast season forgiving one another so that God will forgive them (Matthew 6:14).

The Ash Wednesday service is solemn. Usually Psalm 51 is recited.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

There also is a time of corporate confession and the people come forward to kneel while ashes are placed on their foreheads in the sign of the cross. These words, a reminder of our mortality, are spoken over each person: "Remember that thou are dust and unto dust thou shalt return!" With these words we are reminded that we shall return to the dust from which man was originally made. The words come from Genesis 3:19 where we read that Adam and Eve became subject to the corruption of death with the words of God ringing in their ears:

"for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return"

The imposition of ashes reminds us of the many verses of the Bible that speak of sackcloth and ashes as a sign of sorrow for sins committed. An example is Daniel 9:3: "I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes." Job said, “I repent in dust and ashes.”

Ashes also were worn when one felt humiliated. After she was violated by her brother, "Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her long-sleeved garment which was on her; and she put her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went." (2 Samuel 3:19)

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