Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians become freakish weirdos and smear ashes on their foreheads to remind each other that they’re going to die. At least that’s how this happy little ritual looks to outsiders.
Despite my exaggerated humor, there a lot of faithful Christians who are also unaware of Ash Wednesday. Those who grew up in churches that placed little emphasis on the traditional church calendar or liturgical practices (“Low” churches… think Non-Denoms or Baptist/Congregationalist types) probably never participated in any kind of service or remembrance. So what is Ash Wednesday and why do we participate in the ritual of imposing ashes on one another?
The church calendar sets apart special days or seasons to emphasize a particular aspect of the biblical narrative. For example, Advent is the season we prepare ourselves for Christmas as we ponder the incarnation and the humanity of God. Ash Wednesday’s particular connection to the narrative is the creation-fall story in Genesis. When we put ashes on each other’s forehead and speak the words “from dust you came and to dust you shall return” we are affirming two things: 1) that we are mortal, made from the dust of the earth and 2) because of our sin we are doomed to die. This is a necessary remembrance for Christians as we move into Lent, with its 40 days of fasting meant to remind us of the sacrifices Jesus made on our behalf.
We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, remembering our sentence as mortals doomed to die. We end Lent with Easter Sunday where we celebrate the defeat of death and our inheritance of the promise that someday what is mortal will put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). Rather than viewing it suspiciously as archaic ritual, Ash Wednesday is a time for us to place ourselves within the bigger story of salvation, to incarnate ourselves into the narrative of God’s workings among humanity.