"If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word."
--excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday"
Not all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent. Ash Wednesday, unknown in the Eastern Church, developed only in the West. But traditions of repentance and mourning in ashes date back at least to the time of 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3 in the Hebrew Bible; and Matthew 11:21 speaks about it.
Those of us who use Ash Wednesday to begin Lent find the 40-day season helpful in reconnecting us to the foundations of faith. We believe that Jesus began his public ministry at the age of 30 by being baptized and was immediately sent into a 40-day period of fasting and temptation. And the first Christians developed various devotional ways of remembering the days of Jesus' passion and resurrection. The Church created a variety of customs to prepare, many focused on the season of penitence and fasting. Ash Wednesday dates to at least the eighth century and appears in the Gregorian Sacramentary. Originally, Lent began on a Sunday, but to have the number of days of Lent correspond to the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness, Lent was eventually transferred to begin on a Wednesday.
What evolved was a time when converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil, which begins in darkness and ends in light. That is the genesis of sunrise services. Poignantly, the Church saw Lent as a special time to acknowledge that those who had committed "notorious sins" and become "separated from the body of the faithful" could be reconciled by penitence and forgiveness.
Restoration to the fellowship of the Church was seen as a miracle -- a sign of God's power to re-create, renew and rebirth. As the Book of Common Prayer in my Episcopal tradition puts it, "...the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith."
The definition of the "observance of a holy Lent" is marked by disciplines of self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word, all moving toward that purpose: to believe again in the power of God to offer us ways to "die to sin" and begin new life again. Harkening back to the garden of our first birth, there are two similar Hebrew words: adam -- the man, who was created from the ground, and adamah -- ground or dust, which emphasizes the fragility of humanity and the total dependence of the creature on the Creator.
On Ash Wednesday ashes are mixed with either holy oil or water and blessed and then put on persons' foreheads with the sign of the cross. Made from burning the palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday, those ashes are imposed as the priest says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (referring to Genesis 3:19). Thereby we are reminded of our mortality and humanity and invited in humility to welcome the miracles God continues to reveal and empower us to participate in.
It is not sentimentalism that sustains our journey back to that first garden of paradise with intimacy and connection to God. Rather, it is our foundational and definitional need to be grounded -- remembering that we are dust, eternally connected to the source of all being. Even if we fail to open ourselves to that Word, God continues to speak and to act in the world. Listening opens us to be transformed and to become true stewards of all of creation.
Current events will offer us two directions to take Ash Wednesday this year, it seems to me. We can either feel more different and disconnected from the various peoples of the earth ravaged by violence, oppression, injustice and malfeasance. Or we can feel the ruptures as tearing away at the very fabric of humanity we share, knit together by God, who more than shares our pain by daring to become human in Jesus. The focus on the passion and death of Jesus, which culminates in the final phase of Lent -- Holy Week -- does not simply open the door to an Easter celebration. We believe that the Holy Cross redeems the world by lifting onto it all suffering, across time and cultures. That is our authentic shared humanity.