Up until a couple years ago, we had three services on Ash Wednesday. It’s not uncommon for churches to have multiple services on Ash Wednesday. For the longest time, I just took it for granted that we had multiple services on this holy day. But then I started wondering, why is it this holy day and not others? Since it is a week day we are trying to accommodate people who are going to work and I admire people who take time to come to this service. Yet we only have one service on Holy Thursday, one service on Good Friday. Those are both weekdays. There are other holy days on weekdays (Ascension Day, Feast of the Annunciation, Epiphany, The Feast of St. John….). We don’t have any services on those days. The Roman Catholic Church has ten holy days of obligation and Ash Wednesday isn’t even one of them. Did you know that some churches have begun a practice called “Ashes to go” where they bring ashes to public places and offer them to anyone who might be passing by. People partake in it, even when they have not been in church in years. What is it about Ash Wednesday that appeals to people?
The cynic would tell you that people just come for the ashes so they can show other people that they went to church. But come on…being a Christian isn’t exactly the most popular thing to do anymore. It’s not what you do to impress people. Most people think you just have dirt on your forehead and stare at you while trying to figure out if it is worth telling you that you have dirt on your forehead. So what is it…what is it that makes this the one day out of the year (besides Christmas and Easter—when most people are not at work anyways) when people feel they need to be in church? I think there is something deeper going on, something deep and profound that draws people to church in the middle of the day/at the end of a long day.
The use of ashes goes back thousands of years. We read about it a lot in the Old Testament. When someone had committed a sin and was seeking repentance, the person would roll in ashes or sit in ashes. In some instances an entire town or community would roll in ash, wear sackcloth (which was apparently very uncomfortable and humiliating), and fast in order to seek God’s forgiveness or favor. Sometimes wallowing in ash was an act of mourning. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to the use of ashes and sack cloth as a means of repentance. While now it probably seems a little silly, maybe even unnecessarily demonstrative, for most people it was a very sincere act of humility.
While that is a nice lesson in history and Biblical precedent, I am not sure that it explains why we still use ashes today. In ancient Israel, ashes also represented that which was burned out and wasted…that which once was, but is no more. Has anyone here ever felt burned out or emotionally and physically depleted? You don’t need to raise your hand, but think about it.
We define sacraments as an outward sign of an invisible grace. While faith requires us to believe in things that cannot be seen, Jesus knew that humans needed things that they could touch, feel and even smell. We need to have things that can be experienced. When we talk about sacraments, normally that outward sign is something pleasant to the senses. It might be wine, bread, water, or oil. These allow us to have some tangible understanding of this inward grace.
But what about those things that are more unpleasant: guilt, sin and sorrow. Do we need something tangible for that? I think we do. In fact, I think that one of the reasons why so many people come to church on Ash Wednesday is because it is the one day in the church year when we present a tangible symbol of pain and loss. We recognize the sin and loss that each one of us holds. We don’t try to sweep it under the rug as our culture is so fond of doing. No, we smudge it on our foreheads and in doing so we say, “You may be burned out. You may be hurting. You may be angry. You may have sinned and are having trouble asking for forgiveness. God is here for you and as hard as this may be for you to believe, the church is here for you too.” We are in this together. We all get smudged together. There is no one in this church who is without sin. There is no one who is without pain.
It’s one of the only days in the church year where you leave dirtier than you arrive. That is how we start Lent- by being honest about our sin and pain. We start Lent together and then during Lent, we do the hard work of repentance, so that we can wipe that ash away. We won’t ever be completely free of it, but we can certainly try. We can ask for forgiveness. We can partake in the body of blood and Christ. We can experience moments of grace where we are able to see past the soot.
One of my favorite hymns is called Ashes. The third verse says: We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts, the gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt. Give our stumblings direction, give our visions wider view… This is the day when we can be honest about our failures. We can offer them to God and God will accept them for what they are, a gift freely given in humility and love. Sometimes the gifts we give do not come in pretty packages. Sometimes they are covered in grime. Thankfully, God is not frightened by a little dirt and grime.