So, your boss shows up to work a few minutes late with an odd black smudge on his forehead and something tells you not to mention it, even though everybody’s headed into a manager’s meeting.
Not mentioning it is a good call on your part. He knows it’s there – he attended an early morning Ash Wednesday service marking the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter.
“Ash Wednesday is the name given to the first day of the season of Lent, in which the pastor applies ashes to the foreheads of Christians to signify repentance,” writes Lutheran theologian Dr. Richard P. Bucher.
Not all Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday. For Roman Catholics, it’s entirely optional. It’s generally ignored by Evangelicals such as Southern Baptists as well as Pentecostals in such churches as the Assemblies of God. Eastern Orthodox churches officially begin Lent on Monday – and so do not observe Ash Wednesday at all. But it’s celebrated by many Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans, writes Mary Fairchild.
It’s possibly the worst-attended annual observance on the Christian calendar. Why?
“We will have 400-500 on Easter,” says Nazarene pastor John Privette, “but this service ranks the lowest at a poor 25 or 30. It seems all too Catholic for my tribe. I’ve given it my best shot to educate folks and they like the devotional, the focus, the directive, the messages, the preaching and will come for Good Friday (about 80 or so) and we will have 200 or more at Easter Breakfast, but Ash Wednesday just is not that big a thing for most.”
Catholics often skip it since it’s not a “day of obligation” like Easter or Christmas – days of required attendance.
For others, it’s a high point of the year. “Today is Ash Wednesday, and it is one of my favorite days of the year,” writes Brett McCracken. “I never really celebrated this beautiful day growing up, which is a shame. As the first day of Lent – the 40 day period of repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter – Ash Wednesday provides a perfect chance to quiet oneself and get in the proper penitential mode for the Lenten season."
In a typical Ash Wednesday service, the congregation comes to the front of the sanctuary where the pastor draws a cross on each forehead with a mixture of palm ashes and olive oil.
“At my church and at many churches worldwide today,” writes McCracken, “Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as Los Angeles), but it is beautiful.
“I love Ash Wednesday for the way that it symbolizes – so concisely – what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about being beautiful or powerful or triumphant; it’s about being scarred and humbled and sacrificial.”
Ash Wednesday’s not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but probably started during the 8th century. One of the earliest descriptions is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020), writes Bucher.
In The Lives of the Saints, Aelfric writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins.”
Aelfric then proceeds to tell that on Ash Wednesday, ashes were sprinkled on the head and the congregation came dressed in sackcloth – “gunny sack” burlap – just like Job in the Old Testament who repented before the Lord in sackcloth, dust and ashes, according to Job 42:6.
Other biblical examples cited are in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1,3, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 6:26, Ezekiel 27:30, and Daniel 9:3 – in times of mourning and repentance. Jesus alludes to the practice in Matthew 11:21, saying that the towns of Korazin and Bethsaida had ignored God’s miracles and should “have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
The observance of Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent, “is never mentioned in Scripture and is not commanded by God,” admits Bucher. “Christians are free to either observe or not observe. It also should be obvious that the imposition of ashes, like similar external practices, are meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behavior.”
“In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership,” writes James Akin on the Catholic television network EWTN’s website. “By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ.
“This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
“It is also in imitation of the way the righteousness are described in the book of Revelation, where we read: “Then I looked, and lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”(Revelation 14:1).
“This is in contrast to the followers of the beast, who have the number 666 on their foreheads or hands,” writes Akin.
Why isn’t Ash Wednesday a holy day of obligation for Catholics?
“Holy days of obligation are either commemorations of particular
events (such as the birth of Christ or the presentation of Jesus in the Temple), particular people (such as Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph), or important theological concepts (such as the Kingship of Christ),” explains Akin. “Ash Wednesday does not commemorate any event. Nothing special happened forty days before the crucifixion although Ash Wednesday is a day of penance.”
And that smudged cross on your boss’s forehead? “Many Christians choose to leave the ashes on their forehead for the remainder of the day, not to be showy and boastful,” explains Bucher. “Rather, they do it as a witness that all people are sinners in need of repentance and that through Jesus, all sins are forgiven.”