Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Ash Wednesday, A Personal Account
"Amen," we responded as Pastor Brian dipped his thumb in a small bowl of ashes and marked a smudgy black cross on each forehead.
Back in the car my daughter looked in the mirror, "Ooh," disappointment rang in her voice. "It hardly shows. I wanted a nice dark one so it'd last all day." She was going back to school. My husband, who had an appointment with his banker, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave his forehead a good scrubbing. I was headed back to my computer which was unlikely to note whether or not I had marked the beginning of the Lenten season by attending an Ash Wednesday service.
But in my heart I was very glad I had because this year I was going to "do" Lent. Since childhood I had been frustrated by the way Easter seemed to sneak up on me without warning. I was never really ready to celebrate the glories of the day. And the feeling had increased through the stages of motherhood as sometime in the week before Easter I would suddenly realize, Help, we have to dye eggs and make baskets! I have to plan a dinner! The kids need new clothes!
And the years I was involved in a pageant at church were worse yet--I didn't even have time to get upset over not having enough time.
Somehow, the early Christians seem to have handled things better. Maybe we can learn from them. They started six and a half weeks before Easter examining and simplifying their lives and preparing their hearts for the greatest of all Christian festivals. And they began by observing Ash Wednesday. This observance is a very ancient tradition. The earliest detailed accounts of Lenten ceremonies is in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, written around the year 200.
It was the practice in Rome for new Christians to begin a period of public penance on that day. They dressed in sackcloth and remained apart from social contact until they were reconciled with the Christian community on Maundy Thrusday (the Thursday before Easter). In the 6th century Pope Gregory (who also developed the Gregorian Chant) added sprinkling the penitents with ashes which gave the day the name Ash Wednesday.
When the practice of public repentance fell into disuse sometime in the 8th century the beginning of Lent was marked by a service which included the recitation of 7 penitential psalms and the placing of ashes on the heads of the entire congregation, accompanied by the traditional words,"Remember, O man, that you are ashes, and to ashes you shall return." (Gen. 3:19)
Today many churches hold similar services, such as the one my family attended, where the worshipper receives a cross marked on the forehead with the ashes obtained by burning the palms used on Palm Sunday the year before. Some people find that wearing purple clothing items helps them focus on the season. Last year my daughter added to our season by planting in our garden a Lenten Rose, a lovely purple flower which blooms in February--even in Idaho!