THE BLOG
02/22/2016 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2017

Finding Meaning in Ash Wednesday

Two weeks ago now I found myself once again at my church's Ash Wednesday service. On that February 10, I am looking out at the congregation of over 80 people sitting in the beautiful stone chapel. Unlike the others, I'm seated on the altar in the choir stalls alongside the other musicians. For us, this feels like any routine performance at church -- several hymns, music for the imposition of ashes, the prelude and the postlude.

It is easy to lose the meaning of this peculiar Lenten observance in the ordinariness: The service is opened with a welcome, and worship leaders soon pray and read from the books of Joel, 2 Corinthians, and Matthew. It seems like any other regular Sunday morning, except for the altar swathed in purple, the color of penitence and waiting. Yet the deeper meaning becomes apparent as we are asked to confess our sins, and my pastor delivers her homily on "giving up" and "taking on" during this season.

Like so many modern Christians, I come from a background of multiple denominations -- "half" Lutheran, "half" Catholic, partially raised in a Congregational (UCC) church, and currently attending a Presbyterian one. Following my mother's traditions, I still give up something for Lent, fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and refrain from eating meat on Fridays (instead having fish, once the humble fare of the poor). Catholics and some other denominations fast every Friday of Lent, not eating their light dinner until after sundown. Although not all denominations follow these stricter practices, all do recognize Lent as a time of somber reflection, penitence, and preparation for the coming resurrection.

But why?

Trying to answer this question, I found myself in the respective offices of Case Western Reserve University professors, Dr. Jonathan Tan and Dr. Joy Bostic. Dr. Tan has an academic focus in the Christianity of East Asia, particularly in China, and worldwide Catholicism. He sits behind his cluttered desk, surrounded by a seeming library of books -- taking out more than eight in the course of answering my questions, the references stacking up into a kind of ancient ruin. Dr. Bostic, on the other hand, has a simpler office, the decorations and art reflecting her academic focus on women and African Americans in Christianity. She speaks with a soft and calming voice as she patiently explains to me about this uniquely-Christian practice.

In the early Church (2nd-4th cent.), sin was not a private straying from the will of God, but a public one, additionally going against the Christian community and all that it stood for. For this reason, penance was an act of public shaming, in which the sinner was excommunicated from the church and barred from communion. In order to be welcomed back, the sinner had to undergo a period of penance, during which one fasted, prayed, and wore sackcloth and ashes (a kind of all-purpose scarlet letter).

The clothing of oneself in sackcloth and ashes is an ancient Hebrew tradition, symbolizing sorrow, mourning, and mortality. There are numerous instances of it in the Old Testament, most notably in the book of Jonah (wherein the whole city of Ninevah, from the king to the lowest beggar, don these habits of mourning and penance in order to regain the favor of God).

The forty days of Lent -- a symbol of Jesus' forty days in the desert, and the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the desert -- was a time of preparation for baptism. The period of penance lasted from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday, and new believers were welcomed into the church on Good Friday before Easter.

This practice of public penance, however, was so severe that many were too afraid to be baptized until their death beds. Over time, the practice was phased out and simplified into the symbolic ritual of Ash Wednesday, which first appeared in the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th or mid-8th cent.)

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The murmurings of the pastor pierces a silence that exists outside of the musicians' rendition of "The Glory of These Forty Days," and "What Wondrous Love is This." And then a true silence exists as the the last chord rings, and the two women turn to place the ashes on one another and then on us musicians: "Repent, and believe in the gospel" she says to me. "Amen," I whisper.

As the congregation later files out of the sanctuary to fellowship and a light meal, conversation once again turns to the subjects of ordinary life. Although later we'll go home and wash the ashen cross off our foreheads (some sooner than others), we have been marked. Our beliefs of repentance, mercy, and the path of Christ have been drawn on our foreheads to remind us "whose we are." Yet whether it was intended to or not, the ash also marks us out as different; in the words of Dr. Bostic, it implicitly and explicitly points to our identity as Christians.

As all of us begin to leave the church, we will face others who do not wear or are unfamiliar with the black cross-shaped smudge. But the world has changed. The ashen cross on our foreheads is no longer a symbol of public shame, or of our Christian beliefs alone. As ugly as it seems, as uncomfortable as answering questions may be, it is has become something that is part of who we are. It is a symbol and testimony to a collective identity. An identity we should not be afraid to be a part of.

Sources
Interview with CWRU professor of religion, Dr. Jonathan Tan. 9 Feb. 2016, 1 pm.
Interview with CWRU professor of religion, Dr. Joy Bostic. 10 Feb. 2016, 1:45 pm.
Program/Bulletin from the CWRU Ash Wednesday Service.
Further information confirmed by Rev. Barbara Essex.