For many years, I questioned in my mind the practice of donning ashes at the start of Lent as it seemed, to me, to be at odds with Jesus’ exhortation to perform our spiritual disciplines in secret. For many, that will be the only time of the year when we make a public spectacle of our repentance, perhaps even our faith. As I grew up, it wasn’t a discipline observed in my particular Anglican upbringing. However, the first time I did participate in this ritual, having ashes placed on my forehead by a beloved Anglican mentor, I was so moved by the experience that I vowed to seek the opportunity to participate in or make this observance accessible wherever I ministered.
There is something in the donning of ashes that speaks of change for us and the world around us—a symbol of change that needs to be publicly displayed and not hidden away behind locked doors. The dark smudge on my forehead feels dry and grainy. Felt cool and damp as it was placed there. Already it has changed. I found the following from a service written in an article by Jenee Woodard that helps state what it means.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Dry, sobering words. God forbid that any should forget their humble beginnings or equally humble, inevitable end summed up in a smudge of ash!
Sobering if that were all:
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. But, there’s more. In those ashes lies not just a salutary reminder but an exhortation —
a call to turn from sin and live out the gospel, an affirmation that, from those humble beginnings, we are called to great things.
Turn from sin and live out the gospel transforming the dirty smudge on my forehead into an aspiration of service changing its weight and import into a sign of hope that this ancient holy day ritual still has import.
In a world rushing on to the next thing ashes become symbols of love carrying all the potential to spread love as the gospel is lived out in ordinary people
in humble people who don ashes to change the world.