The oddness of Ash Wednesday

The ritual might be strange, but the message is simple and universal: Life is short, so live it well, and wisely.

The ritual might be strange, but the message is simple and universal: Life is short, so live it well, and wisely.

By now you may have run into someone with a gray smudge on their forehead and wondered about it. Maybe you even suggested they seemed to have something on their face and might want to stop by the restroom.

It’s a bit of ash. Today, for Christians, is Ash Wednesday, the first of the 40 days of the season of Lent, a word drawn from the Old English word for lengthen, which calls to mind the lengthening of days this time of year in our hemisphere.

What’s up with the ashes on the forehead? At an Ash Wednesday service, a worship leader makes the sign of the cross with a mix of ashes and olive oil on each person’s forehead. Then the leader speaks these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Or you might hear alternate words, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news.”

It’s an odd ritual, the oddness of it being part of its appeal for some of us. What’s it mean?

For one thing, it’s a reminder that we are mortal, that we too shall die, and that our time is limited. This flies in the face of almost everything else in our culture, from nip-and-tuck cosmetic surgery to hair-dying and other assorted remedies for our own aging, to the out-of-sight, out-of-mind institutionalization of the dying, to a health care system that is our massive and massively funded hedge against death.

In a simple ritual, a true word is spoken. You are mortal. Your days are limited. Use them well and wisely. A benediction I like catches this:

Life is short
and we do not have much time with those with whom we walk the way.
So be swift to love,
make haste to be kind,
in the name of Jesus Christ, our companion on the way.

There’s another feature of this odd ritual and service. It invites each person to a time of self-examination. The point is not to identify the problems and failures of others. It is to take a long look at your own.

This too seems, increasingly, a counter-cultural practice. We are fluent in the language of blame. We are masters of the languague of self-justification. Ash Wednesday, and all of Lent really, invite us to become fluent in the language of confession of our own sin and shortcomings, to practice self-examination. Taking responsibility for our own part in the mess. Like I said, “counter-cultural.”

It’s not the easiest of days, Ash Wednesday. But as one person who never missed an Ash Wednesday service once said to me, “It’s the one day of the year the church gets it right. We are sinners, all of us, in need of grace.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.