What Ashes Mean On Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Despite a Christian upbringing it wasn’t until I went to college that I observed many people walking around with a black smudge on their forehead and came to understand what it meant. I majored in religion at Duke which was founded by Methodist preacher Brantley York, who my fiancé-as-of-this-past-weekend, Gregory York…, coincidentally is a direct descendant and namesake of. I received my diploma in York Chapel in the Duke Divinity School with a painting of his great great hanging over me… Moving on, my focus was in Judaism and believe it or not it is in the Jewish faith and not the Christian one that the tradition of ashes is rooted. There is a lot of history to Ash Wednesday in regard to the first century Christian church, obviously the Catholic church and the subsequent adaptation of the Protestant church. Creeds and books of common prayer and date changes and councils and as you can imagine lots of disagreements, changes and so on. I will leave that to the historian, which I am not. What I find most appealing  and have always gravitated towards is what wisdom or experience scripture and spirituality actually mean to speak to the human experience, then and now. What I always find myself most interested in, on days like today, is understanding the deeper meaning of the ritual, in this case ashes on the forehead, and what we are intended to learn, observe or shed in light of its observance.

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Though the Bible never mentions the tradition of Ash Wednesday or even Lent, the symbol and tradition of wearing ashes is rooted in its ancient text as a sign of mourning. Originally “sackcloth and ashes” not just ashes, a person wearing or presenting in these was expressing the deepest of human grief, suffering or repentance. Sackcloth was intense. Not a smudge on the forehead received in a moment, sackcloth in its origin consisted of a dark, coarse covering comprised mostly of goat hair. As is/was often the case with traditional Jewish observations of mourning, an intended level of discomfort, in this case the hair against the skin, was meant to be a tangible and ever-present reminder of what they were mourning. The “ashes” part of this Biblical tradition was seen in the mourner sitting in ashes or pouring ashes over his head. In the Torah Jacob presents in sackcloth and ashes as he mourns Joseph. On other occasions David, Daniel, Job, Esther and Tamar among other patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith offer themselves to God and their communities in sackcloth and ashes. Back to the very overt nature of the ritual, the point was to externally show the poverty, need and affliction of the inner person. What I find amazing about this is how contrary it is to not only our modern day observance of Ash Wednesday but our overall mode of operating. We are supposed to show everything but the broken, impoverished state of our own hearts, minds or feelings, what out life may really be like when we show up to work or church or happy hour or Facebook. Social media is an extreme example of the tendency to bolster a facade but in my opinion takes more of the brunt than it should sometimes – the ego, at the root of this need to appear to be something none of us are – is age-old.

Today, Ash Wednesday, for various denominations marks the beginning of Lent as a time to reflect, repent or refrain from something in observance of the season of Passover and Easter. I have no doubt that for many today is relevant and reminiscent of the original meaning of ashes. But for me I am challenged and reflective of how differently I and the world around me actually live out our day to day in light of this ritual. The vulnerability and humility of sackcloth and ashes, in its origin, seem the furthest possible cry from what we are most familiar with. That is not a judgement or berating on 2015, America or otherwise, just an observation. Again, I think it’s age-old, with us since the beginning. I think it’s why the Jewish people felt it so important to be extreme in their expression of inner turmoil: because they, like us, were human. And they knew to be human was to want to show everything but what’s really going on inside, especially when it’s a grief or loss or lostness so great as to weep and wail and wear sackcloth and ashes. It seems it is much easier to bebop along, to remain unconscious or unaware. To become sure that there’s an “other” who you are better than – the mother-in-law, Muslim, neighbor,  co-worker, ex-wife, ex-friend or Facebook friend – whoever we need in our peripheral to ensure our exterior (and more unfortunately interior) remain strong and superior.

Ash Wednesday as I see it intends to reveal to us of a different state, a counter-intutively different one, that reminds us we’re all human, all in an inner struggle of some sort (even that person you can’t imagine having compassion or understanding for), and are all better off if we are able to show those around us who and what we really are inside but even more crucially to show ourselves who and what we really are inside…

Richard Rohr says it this way:

 “…The need to be right, the need to be first, the need to think I am saved and other people are not. This is the lowest level of human consciousness, and God cannot be heard from that heady place. Perhaps it is not accidental that we place the ashes of Ash Wednesday precisely on the forehead.”

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