February 11, 2024 - Pastor Message02/23/2024
“On the twenty-fourth day of this month, the Israelites gathered together fasting and in sackcloth, their heads covered with dust. Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all who were of foreign extraction, then stood forward and confessed their sins and the guilty deeds of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:1-2).
This Wednesday begins the season of Lent, our shared forty-day retreat of prayer, fasting, and works of charity, all in preparation for the holiest celebration of the year, Triduum, our three-day remembrance of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We call this first day of Lent Ash Wednesday because of our practice of marking our heads with ashes, but why do we do that? What is the meaning of the ashes, and what do they have to do with the season of Lent?
The practice of covering one’s head in dust or ashes dates back to ancient times as a sign of repentance from sin. It recalls the story of Adam, the first human being, whom God formed from the dust of the Earth. In his pride, Adam sinned against God, rebelling against his own nature, and so God had to remind him of his place in the world: “Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat of the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Ashes, the charred remains of earthly things, remind us then of our own mortality, and by marking our heads with them, we humbly acknowledge before God our lowliness, against which we, in our pride, rebel by our sins.
But that isn’t the only meaning of the ashes. We produce the ashes by burning the blessed palm branches from Palm Sunday. We use the palms to commemorate Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, a worldly triumph that, like all things in this world, was fleeting. The same people who hailed him as the son of David at the beginning of the week nailed him to a cross as an imposter and traitor at the end of the week. Yet it was through the humiliation of the cross that Christ achieved his ultimate triumph, his victory over sin and death. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we who in justice lost earthly paradise through our sin are, in God’s unfathomable charity, forgiven and given the chance to share in Christ’s victory in his heavenly kingdom, “where neither moth nor decay destroys” (Matthew 6:20). By marking our heads with these ashes, we gratefully acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice for us, hail him as our king, whose “kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36), and renounce our sinful choosing of the things of this world over the things of heaven.
So why do we mark our heads with ashes on Ash Wednesday? In a word, repentance, and that is what Lent is all about. Begin your Lenten journey of repentance by prayerfully observing Ash Wednesday, and may the ashes which mark our heads change our hearts.
Fr. Marc Stockton