Why ashes? Penitence. In the words of Aelfric, a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon homilist:
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, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266)The application of ashes to the forehead is usually accompanied by one of three instructional phrases:
“Remember...that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”**Where does the Church acquire these ashes? By burning palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday (March 1, 2006) and mixing them with olive oil as a fixative. Of course, in this day and age, you can purchase them as well. For more information about that, visit Ash-Wednesday.org.
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
“Repent, and hear the good news.”
My Ash Wednesday was quiet and due to a last-minute scheduling conflict I was unable to attend church. For anyone else who missed the corporate worship event of the day, may I suggest this short devotional, taken from the Service Book and Hymnal of the Lutheran Church in America, 1958? Note: I updated the “thee,” “thou,” and “-eth” usages in an effort to enhance readability. I also substituted the phrase “Holy Spirit” for the phrase “Holy Ghost.” Have a blessed day.
* Sundays are not included in this calculation.
** from Genesis 3:19.
I will cry unto God most High : unto God that performs all things for me. Yea, in the shadow of your wings will I make my refuge : until these calamities be overpast. Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me : for my soul trusts in you. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit : as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, who hates nothing that He has made, and does forgive the sins of all those who are peniten t: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 John 1:5-9
GRADUAL (response to the Epistle)
Be merciful unto me, O God, be merciful unto me : for my soul trusts in you. He shall send from heaven : and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up.
He has not dealt with us after our sins : nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. Help us, O God of our salvation; for the glory of your Name.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you,
And be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
And give you peace. Amen.