Ashes and Turning Away from Sin

Today is Ash Wednesday in the West. Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as some other groups, follow this tradition each year. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, which is the six-week period before Easter. It appears to have originated in the 8th century. It is a day to be characterized by a penitential service during which Christians receive ashes on their foreheads  with the exhortation: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel." Another formula used in the application of the ash says, "Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return." In the Catholic Church this is an obligatory fast day. In the Roman rite the day was chosen because Sundays were excluded from fasting so to make up for the six Sundays before Easter the day fell on Wednesday. Lent ends on the Thursday before Easter and was also a time for adult catechumens to prepare for baptism and their first Eucharist.

What does all of this have to do with evangelical faith and practice? I suppose it all depends on your perspective about special days and the church calendar. I am not bound in my conscience to such church days but I choose to celebrate them because they help me focus my heart on the great truths that they convey to me as a Christian. At the heart of this service are several layers of meaning for the worshiping Christian. With my heart and soul I affirm own my humanity on Ash Wednesday. I am but dust! I also acknowledge that God is my creator. Then I am led to confess my sins and to seek God for forgiveness, seeking to go forward in the newness of life that I have been given in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Common Prayer (Anglican) contains this prayer to be said before the ashes are placed on the recipient:

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.

Three practices are traditionally encouraged during the season of Lent: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Each is to be done in private according to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6:1-18. This is the text that the church historically focused upon during the celebration of Lent. (In the East the disciplines associated with Lent are more rigorous.) There can be abuses in these practices, of course, but the idea of it all is really a simple, humble response to Christ. Western Christians can be especially helped by this day to remember that they have so much material blessing and thus they can grow in the grace of God even more if they learn to give their material stuff away, especially to the poor.