“…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
Ash Wednesday indicates the first day of Lent. With the feasting of Shrove Tuesday behind us, this Principal Holy Day is one of quiet reflection and penitence as we begin our journey towards the cross and the empty tomb.
The preparations for the day are unobtrusive. The palm crosses, the precious symbol of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem from the previous year are returned and burned. Their ashes become the crosses placed on our foreheads – the outward acknowledgement of our willingness to turn back to Christ and walk faithfully with him.
Ancient tradition tells us that ashes sprinkled over our heads have long represented self-loathing, repentance, and mourning. When Job, in the Old Testament, realizes that his family and possessions have been destroyed, he declares,
“… I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6).
By the 12th century, the practice had been adapted to the wearing of sackcloth and strewing of ashes over heads (think of Henry II’s act of penitence as he accepted his involvement in the murder of his friend, Chancellor and Archbishop Thomas Becket).
Nowadays, the ash is placed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross. However, the symbolism is as powerful as ever: penitence, immortality and the desire to return ourselves to God and Christ.
As we attend our Ash Wednesday services in our pared-back churches with all adornments removed, we wait quietly for our turn to receive the imposition of the ash cross; it is at that moment that we are reminded,
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. (Anglican Service Booklet)