Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday, A Personal Account

We were just a little uneasy. We had never done this before. We knelt at the altar as the minister prayed, "Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior."

"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!

From Seasons of Prayer, Rediscovering Classic Prayers Through the Christian Calendar, by Donna Fletcher Crow, 2000, Beacon Hill Press. Http://

Donna is the author of 40 books, mostly novels of British history. Her newest book An Unholy Communion, The Monastery Murders, will be released next month. You can see the trailer and read about all her books at


  1. Thank you for sharing this. My husband is a pastor and in the last few years we've begun to discover the church calendar. We're celebrating Lent at our church this year for the first time. Here's his blog about it. (I'll post a link to yours there as well).

  2. I too have often felt like Easter snuck up on me. Perhaps I should consider paying more attention to Lent. Just ordered your book as a start.

  3. Terri and LeAnne, thank you for sharing. Havwe a blessed Lent.

  4. Donna, thank you for sharing a lovely post. Easter is such a special time for us as Christians. It defines us. God bless!

  5. Thank you. Lent is a wonderful time of year. And now I'm remembering I intended to change the flowers outside our front door--must do it tomorrow.

  6. I remember the first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended, after becoming a Christian. I was working at the CMS (Church MissionSociety) in London, & the service was led by Bishop Michael Nazie-Ali. For me, it was a totally new experience when he placed the ashes on my forehead, a moment I'll never forget. Each year since, I have raised my own awareness of Lent, in the small groups I've belonged to, or by going on a Lent retreat or quiet day. Now we have a wonderful little book called "Love Life, Live Lent" which gives all sorts of small, practical, meaningful ways in which people can mark Lent (and not necessarily by giving up chocolate!)One year, one of the tasks was to visit the place of worship of another faith; I visited the main synagogue in Birmingham and it was fascinating.

  7. So true, Carole!

    Sheila D, My Lenten roses are starting to bloom by my front door--right on cue!

    Sheila S, thank you for sharing your memories. A wonderful story.

  8. I never knew the story behind Lent. Thanks for researching it Donna. If these traditions help us to learn more of our Lord Jesus then it's a wonderful motivation to keep them.

  9. Great writing from Donna, as usual. She has helped me keep the thought of Lent alive this year. I have been on Hospice and not able to attend church for some months. I AM remembering the Lenten season this year. Thanks again to Donna. I, also, did not know the history of Lent until Donna wrote this. So: thank you, Donna.