Written by Betsy Wagoner. Media by Justin Smith.
Growing up, I never participated in Ash Wednesday. Although I grew up in a Protestant home with strong Christian values and practices, this particular day was never something my family ever took part in. Actually it was never even mentioned. I wasn’t even aware of what the Lenten season was until I entered high school.
I for some reason always assumed that Ash Wednesday was only a ritual that Catholics participated in. I noticed that many people in my hometown would have what it appeared to be black smudges on their forehead the Wednesday that was 46 days before Easter (although at the time I had no idea how many days it was until Resurrection Sunday). I never gave it much of a second thought because I thought it was just something that liturgical churches participated in, and since my church wasn’t very liturgical, I just didn’t care (religious hegemony, much?) I was never even aware of the fact that many Protestants participated in Ash Wednesday until I came to college.
Since coming to Greenville, my entire perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent has changed completely. Instead of thinking it was something that Protestants didn’t really participate in, I had my eyes fully opened my freshman year. By being prompted by my roommate, Brittney Gilleland, I attended my first Ash Wednesday service which took place at St. Paul’s in Greenville. This service allowed me to understand the importance of being a part of something that has taken place since the days of the Old Testament.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder for us to take the example of the men in biblical times, which when doing penance wore sack cloths and covered themselves in ashes. These men would not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday, after they had participated in penance for forty days. On Ash Wednesday we are reminded to reflect upon our sin, to humble our hearts, and to keep in mind that our lives will soon end on this Earth.
As a symbol of our penance, ashes are used to make the mark of the cross upon our foreheads. These ashes are usually made from the palm branches that were used on Palm Sunday of the previous year. Often in these services we are asked to recite prayers that allow us to reflect on our unrighteousness, to repent of our sins, and to humble ourselves before the Lord asking for forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed against him.
Now as I mentioned previously, I had never taken part of this practice until my freshman year. While waiting in line to receive the markings of the ashes on my forehead, I felt an overwhelming sense of community (classic Greenville word that had to be thrown in here). I was surrounded by sinners, who just like me were fully aware of our sins and what our fate would be without Jesus. We were willing to commit our lives before the Lord, humbling ourselves and calling upon Him to take away our sins.
When I reached the front, I was given the mark of the cross on my forehead while hearing the words, “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” This was a very humbling experience for me. It was a reminder that my life on this Earth is very short and that the things I often worry about mean absolutely nothing in the end.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. This 40 day season of sacrificing something in our lives is used to represent the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert while continuously being tempted by Satan. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, but Sundays are not included as part of the fasting period. We end this season by the celebration of Easter Sunday, when Jesus won the fight against death.
I have now been participating in the Lenten season for the last 4 years, and I must say that my relationship with Christ has grown greatly. Because of this ritual that was never before in my life, my eyes have been opened even more to the greatest sacrifice ever given. I am more aware of the shortness of my life, and it has made me want to do the most I can with the little time I have here.
It is obvious that I am not a scholar on the biblical history of Ash Wednesday, but if this is something that is new to you or interests you, I would highly suggest talking to a religion professor on campus. They have wonderful insight into the topic and will be able to help you better understand the history behind this practice. If you have never participated in this practice, I would encourage you not to be weirded out or judgmental to the topic as I was while growing up, but rather do your best to search for answers and do what feels right to you.
For more information on Ash Wedensday and Lent, checkout this link.