Reflections on the Imposition of Ashes

Ash Wednesday will soon be here. Lent is starting again.

We are familiar with these things. Year after year, we see the dates marked for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and we might even have traditions for celebrating Fat Tuesday. But this year it will be different. The pandemic has made us question things we previously took for granted and forced us to take a closer look at everything we do.

Specifically, as we at COS look forward to Ash Wednesday, we looked at the practice of the Imposition of Ashes. You know what it’s all about: during the service we line up in the aisle and wait for the pastor to draw the sign of the cross, in ashes, on our foreheads or hands. We listen as he recites the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” (from Genesis 3) over us. We can and should ask ourselves, why do we do this? What does this custom mean? And pertinent to the current situation, how can we do it this year, considering the concerns with COVID-19?

To answer these questions, we must understand what is at the core of this custom. The Imposition of Ashes was started as an opportunity for us to remember our sinfulness and need for repentance. This is nothing new; we know that we are sinful creatures, and we have been taught the importance of repentance. In all parts of our spiritual lives, however, reminders are important. Even the Apostle Paul recognized this (“Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder,” 2 Peter 1:12-13).

Dr. Samuel Johnson put it more succinctly: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

Ash Wednesday is a holy day where we remember two specific things: 1) our human frailty and 2) our need for public repentance before God. These are somber topics. After we acknowledge the truth of our frailty and sinfulness, though, we can equally experience God’s true and real love for us and the amazing victory we celebrate at Easter.

The concept of celebrating important days with memorable rituals on an annual basis came straight from the highest authority: God himself. In the books of the law, God gave detailed instructions to Moses for worship in the tabernacle and festivals, with specific rituals to mark each one. (“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.’” Leviticus 23:1-2)

We are no longer bound to fulfill these laws: Jesus’ perfect life and final sacrifice taught us this, among other things. (“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8). But the Old Testament rules and regulations do show us a piece of God’s character: he is eager to minister to us in tangible ways.

As we feel the ashes, hear the words of the pastor, and see the crosses on the foreheads and hands of those around us, we are powerfully reminded of what this season of Lent means. We cannot ignore the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our church practices. Our pastors will be cautious during the Imposition of Ashes. Their hands will be sanitized, and they will be wearing masks. Congregants will approach one by one to receive the mark of the cross.

During this pandemic, there is another reason to celebrate this ritual. So much of our lives have been upset in the past year, and so much that we relied on is gone. While we must accept changes in many areas of our lives, neither God nor his love for us has changed. This one return to normalcy can remind us of those promises. We live in faith, not in fear.

You are welcome to receive the imposition of the ashes as you are comfortable. We certainly respect how you decide to mark this holy day. Whether you come forward to receive the ashes, stay in your seat, or watch at home, you can meditate on the meaning of Ash Wednesday, the upcoming season of Lent, and the significance of Christ’s sacrifice. There is no law here, but there is an opportunity. The opportunity to be overwhelmed by God’s love through the realization of who we really are and how completely Christ has redeemed us. His sacrifice, his love, and his redemption are at the core of this ritual.

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