The imposition of ashes upon the heads of Christians during Ash Wednesday symbolizes mourning and penitence.
By the ash on their foreheads will most Christians around the world acknowledge their faith on Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
There are about two billion Christians around the world, but not all celebrate Ash Wednesday and/or Lent. Those who do will receive the imposition of ashes, as it has come to be known, from a priest who traces the sign of the cross on their foreheads with ash and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ash is meant to symbolize mourning and penitence. The ashes are palms kept from the previous Palm Sunday which are burned and mixed with anointing oil.
Ash Wednesday, said to have begun as early as the third century, is also recognized by Christians as the day of fasting for 40 days before Easter. The 40-day period was chosen based on the Biblical account that Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.
“In the early centuries, the fast was very strict, with only one meal allowed late in the day and no meat and no fish. Later the rules were relaxed,” and fish was allowed, according to the book, “Best of Blessings” by Ginny Arthur. The practice has been considerably relaxed in many societies today, with some abstaining from meat only on Fridays for the duration of Lent.
Lent is generally observed by many Christians also as a time of self-denial, deep prayer, and charity. It culminates with Holy Week, which commemorates the Passion of Christ and on Easter Sunday, his resurrection.
While there are differing versions about the origin of the word Lent, it is said to mean “spring,” which for many symbolizes life and rebirth. Lent, therefore, “can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out things which hinder our…personal relationships with Jesus Christ…” according to the informational resource ChurchYear.net. Canon Stewart Murray, a priest from the diocese of Ottawa, says Lent can be “an opportunity to step back from our busy lives and see if the use of our time reflects what we believe to be of importance.” Writing in the February issue of Crosstalk, the diocese of Ottawa’s newspaper, he reflects that “In the past, people were encouraged also to live more simply, in terms of diet – meatless meats on Fridays…and simple meals in general, not only frees up more time but also gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to food and to consumption in a world where so many go hungry.”
The famous sermon delivered 10 years ago by the Anglican Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, is one that many Anglicans around the world have come to reflect upon each Lent. “Lent can be a time for reducing some of the chronic over-stimulation which is so much a part of modern living; a time when we protect ourselves a little more from the daily bombardments of images and stimuli, the pressures which keep us trapped on the surface,” said Bishop Chartres. “Perhaps by not reading so many newspapers, hearing so much, watching so much, consuming so much, so that we can be liberated from the sick hurry which dulls our capacity to hear the still small voice.”
Bishop Chartres delivered the sermon at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, on Feb. 14, 1999, nearly a decade before the advent of the Blackberry, the IPhone, Ipod and the so-called social media (Facebook, Twitter) that have come to dominate the lives of many in the West.
Perhaps Lent “is the time to live more simply in order to tighten up the drumskin, so that God’s drumbeat can be heard more clearly in our lives,” added Bishop Chartres. “Just giving up chocolate, which can be resumed in a great binge on Easter Day, does little good and can easily fill us with an unhelpful sense of spiritual achievement…”
Churches and church-based organizations often offer reflections during Lent. Some examples found online:
* Carbon Fast for Lent, offered by Kairos, the ecumenical justice coalition.
· “Holy Waters,” offers Lenten reflections produced by the Ecumenical Water Network, “which explore the connection between the way water is used in different liturgical practices and our daily water.” The texts are posted by week.
· Meditations for Lent, by St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Halifax.
· Anglicans Online, the largest, most thorough and comprehensive online resource for Anglicans worldwide, has a compilation of websites focusing on Lent. They range from 40 Ideas for Lent published by the popular (and irreverent Anglican) website Ship of Fools to Bach and Durer’s “Passion Music and Imagery.”