Ash Wednesday is celebrated in Christendom today. The day, which marks the start of Lent, is commemorated by fasting, abstinence, and for many practicing Christians, a mass or service where ashes are placed on the forehead. For Catholics in particular, while it is not a holy day of obligation, mass attendance is strongly encouraged to get into the spirit of repentance, which characterizes the Lenten season.
The history of the ashes on Ash Wednesday is both cultural and biblical. In many ancient civilizations where Old Testament stories are placed, ashes were used to display grief, mourning, and repentance. In The Second Book of Samuel, King David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar. According to the narrative, to express her grief, Tamar sprinkled ashes on her forehead (2 Samuel 13:19). In The Book of Esther, Mordecai (who adopted Esther) put ashes on his forehead when he heard of King Ahasuerus’ plan to kill all the Jewish people (Esther 4:1). King Ahasuerus was the king of Persia from 485 – 464 BCE.
In the New Testament, when giving instructions to his disciples to go into different towns and preach, Jesus acclaimed, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes (Luke 10:13).” Thus, ashes are part of the history of Judeo-Christian traditions.
While Ash Wednesday is celebrated among many Christian denominations, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., it is most visibly culturally associated with Catholics. Many Christian groups, but especially Catholics, are also known for “giving up” something during the season of Lent, a 40-day period that imitates Jesus’40-day fast from food and water in the desert. Popular things to give up include types of food and drink, usually vices like cookies and alcohol, or anything that might be a regular indulgence for an individual. Instead of “giving things up,” many Christians also choose to “do more” of some things, such as pray more or give more of their time to altruistic experiences.
This year, Pope Francis has called for a fast from “indifference towards others.” It is a response to a phenomenon he calls, the globalization of indifference. As he often does, and does well, Pope Francis universalizes what is ordinarily a specific celebration for a specific group of faith. While Ash Wednesday and Lent play an important role in the lives of all practicing Christians who indeed practice the traditions, the Pope’s calling is one that can be adhered to by just about everyone concerned with the welfare of their fellow humans.
Earlier today, as I walked up to get my ashes, I heard those profound words that are spoken as the priest draws a cross on the forehead, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words, heard in the confines of the faith I practice, could easily become ordinary. After all, I’ve heard them in this specific context for my entire life. But every year, I am struck at the universality of these words. That regardless of all the ways that human beings are different – some of those ways superficial and some, significant – all of us, every single one of us, at one time or another, will indeed, “return to the dust.” We are all going to die.
Across religions and cultures, while death is perceived differently and the practices of mourning and remembrance is diverse, there is often still an uncertainty, an apprehension, that accompanies death’s perception. But whatever those differences, death is a fact; it is inescapable. At least in the very ordinary, human sense.
For all of us, regardless of culture and creed, death is a reason to mourn. To mourn the lives of loved ones, and to mourn for ourselves and the loss we experience when the reality of death physically separates us from those we knew. Too often however, it is only death that might cause us to remember the fragility of life. Ash Wednesday and Lent are a call for Christians to be cognizant of this fragility, and to repent to God and to our fellow human beings for our wrongdoings. The greatest of these, I think, is our lack of love – our indifference. Perhaps one doesn’t need ashes on the forehead to repent for this sin.