What’s On Your Forehead?: Understanding & Redeeming Ash Wednesday

Photo by  MTSOfan

Photo by MTSOfan

Last week, I wrote a post entitled, "How Jesus Changed Time: Redeeming the Liturgical Year." Understanding how Jesus changed time through his life, death, and resurrection is crucial to recognizing the importance of today’s holiday. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day after Fat Tuesday and the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and repentance leading up to Easter.

Why People Place Ashes on Their Forehead

If you live in New Orleans, or somewhere else where Catholicism is a strong presence, you have or will run into someone with a black-grey substance on their forehead. These are generally Roman Catholics or others from a high-church/liturgical tradition (e.g. Episcopalians/Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists) who will participate in Ash Wednesday. One of the most common questions about Ash Wednesday is, “Where is this day taught in the Scriptures?” The simplest answer to that question is that it isn’t taught anywhere. However, the Old Testament is replete with commands to put on “sackcloth and ashes” as a visible representation of mourning and repentance over sin (e.g. Job 42:6, Esther 4:1, Jonah 3:5-7, Daniel 9:3). By the mid-300s, the church was observing a season of Lent, a forty-day period “to renew a commitment grown dull, perhaps by a life more marked by routine than by reflection.”1 Lent was a time to fast, reflect, and repent in preparation for the coming of Easter, the celebration of our Lord Jesus’s victory over sin, death, and hell through his resurrection.

While Lent has a more ancient history, Ash Wednesday is a bit younger. According to Religion News Service, “By the 10th century, the monk Aelfric tied the practice, which dates to the eighth century, to the period before Easter, writing, ‘Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.’ By the 11th century, the practice was widespread throughout the church—until Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, threw the practice out in the 16th century because it was not biblically based.”2

Why Ash Wednesday & Lent Still Matter

Like most Christian activities, Ash Wednesday and Lent can, and for many have, become empty, religious traditions. However, this does not have to be the case for us. Instead, we can redeem Ash Wednesday and Lent for our spiritual benefit. As I shared last week, time is important in the Christian life, and so Ash Wednesday and Lent can be important days and seasons for us as well. Today, Vintage Church will be hosting two reflective worship gatherings on Ash Wednesday; however, you will find no ashes being smeared on people’s foreheads. Rather, you will find people gathering together in prayer, song, and reflection, asking God to prepare their hearts in this season. Today should be an opportunity for us to say in unison,

We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God. We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way. We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions in sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savorings of excesses, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving another. . . . We hear now, as Jesus proclaimed in Galilee, “Turn away from sin and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).3

Beginning today and through Lent, may our hearts and minds be focused on Jesus and what he has done for us. May we reflect on our own lives, repent of our sins, and praise God for his never-ending love for us. Instead of disregarding this season as another time on the calendar or even an empty religious ritual, may you and I redeem it, making Ash Wednesday and Lent a time of spiritual growth in our lives, becoming more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Join us at the Vintage Arts Center this Wednesday night, March 1st at 7pm for Vintage Church's Ash Wednesday gathering. This evening will be a different type of worship gathering focused on prayer, reflection, and repentance. Childcare is available if needed. 

1Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 111.
2“The ‘Splainer: Ash Wednesday and Dirty Christian Foreheads,” Religion News Service, February 16, 2015, accessed February 17, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/02/16/splainer-ash-wednesday-dirty-christian-foreheads/.
3Chittister, The Liturgical Year, 118.