Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and a day of penitence before the Lent fast. It’s officially called the Day of Ashes, and it’s the day after Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yolk, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Lent is the season of fasting, repentance, prayer, and self-control, which lasts for forty days, in remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made when he was fasting in the wilderness of the desert.
In some Churches, a cross of ash is made on the forehead of those who attend an Ash Wednesday service. It’s a sign of penitence, and mortality. Although the tradition dates back to the 11th century, ashes were used before then as a symbol of repentance. The ashes sometimes come from the burnt palm crosses that were blessed at the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, and are usually mixed with anointing oil to form a paste that’s applied to the skin.
Marking our forehead with the sign of the cross reminds us:-
- that everybody will die
- that we need to repent our sins
- that we need to improve ourselves
- that God made the first human by breathing life into dust, and that humans would just be dust and ashes without God
- of the cross that was made when we were baptised
- of the doctrine of original sin
- of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as atonement for sin, in the New Testament
Ash Wednesday reminds us to repent our sins, and although it has a non-Christian origin, it has been accepted by Christians since 325AD. We believe that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we can be free from sin.
Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, ‘Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments, we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances.
God made the first human being by breathing life into dust. The Bible tells us about people repenting in dust and ashes. It reminds us that we came from dust, and that one day we will return to dust.
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Jesus advises His people not to make a show when they are fasting. He wants them to focus on others, instead of just themselves, and that God will see their fasting. Lent is a time for us to think about our life, and to repent. Where is our heart? Do we want true repentance? Or are our actions purely for the sake of appearances?
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
We must not allow spiritual discipline to become spiritual pride. Division is created when one group of people think that they are better than another. It’s the wrong path to take, and many years ago Saint Paul warned the Gentiles about the damaging effects of spiritual pride. Salvation is by God’s grace alone.
If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not vaunt yourselves over the branches. If you do vaunt yourselves, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God’s kindness towards you, provided you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
For the Church in Wales, Ash Wednesday is on 6th March 2019.