What draws so many people to services on Ash Wednesday? After all, it’s not a holy day of obligation and it falls smack in the middle of the week. I once discussed this with a pastor who noted how everyone who showed up left with something, no matter what their status in or outside the Church. Leaving with a black smudge on the forehead seems like a piteous gift, but one that obviously holds deep resonance for many, many people.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
The late Henri Nouwen described Lent as a time to re-focus and to re-enter a place of truth. It is here where we find our true identity. The line from Genesis reminds us of this in stark measure. Our lives on this earth won’t last forever. We are a finite people who hold hope in something infinite and beyond ourselves. Bearing a mark throughout the day that is visible to others puts an explanation point on the Genesis passage. We become walking witnesses of that place of truth.
Heaping ashes upon the head, rending the garment, and donning sackcloth were all outward signs of penitence in biblical times. Such a display was one of abject humility and repentance, but could also turn into an occasion for infighting and ego-inflation. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?” the prophet Isaiah asks. “Is it only for bending one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?” He goes onto describe the more appropriate fast – that of loosening the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, and setting the oppressed free. (See Isaiah 58:4-6)
The three traditional Lenten practices echo Isaiah’s call. Not only is it a season for penitence, but also for prayer and almsgiving. It is a one in which to return to ourselves as well as to God. So perhaps an innate understanding of this draws so many people to Ash Wednesday. We somehow know the best way to begin a season which calls us into self-examination as well as self-denial, into deeper contemplation about the mystery and grace of God’s mercy, and towards more radical giving towards those most in need of comfort, sustenance, and hope.