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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What is the deal with Ash Wednesday?


As most of you know by now by getting “ashed” or seeing a bunch of folks walking around with black marks on their heads, today was Ash Wednesday. I’m certain that this tradition goes back thousands of years, yet it seems that many of those who participate and then also many of those who don’t seem to misunderstand the purpose of the day and the tradition itself. As one of those who were “ashed,” I had a few questions (and puzzled looks thrown my way) today at the hospital. In honor of those questions, I thought I’d write a quick reflection on my understanding of the tradition and why I choose to be a part of the celebration.

The questions were:

- Why do you feel like you have to demonstrate a “holier than thou” sign all day?

- Who needs those ashes or Ash Wednesday anyway?

I assure you, over the many years of participating in this tradition and then also quite a few of not; I have often thought of these same questions myself. Yet today, I am excited about this season of Lent.

First of all, I will admit - there is a certain comfort I feel when I see others with the same sign on their heads. However, this comfort is largely outweighed the simple fact I don’t put ashes on my head so others can be comforted or so I can demonstrate that I am a Christian.

In fact, I celebrate Ash Wednesday because of what it does for me.

Wearing the ashes gives me an opportunity to admit to all of those around me that I am a sinner – or if discussion of sin is foreign to you – that I am not perfect and I am not special. This is difficult to admit over and over throughout the day, but at the same time, it is incredibly liberating and humbling. I am making an outward sign that I commit myself to as much reflection/prayer/repentance in the next 40 days as I can handle.

I am excited for Lent because this yearly season gives me an incredible opportunity to reflect on life as an ongoing conversion – that I must continue to evaluate myself and my actions if I truly wish to model myself after the person I claim to model myself after.

We are constantly bombarded with messages these days that encourage us to seek titles and degrees and money, we have all the bells and whistles to achieve our wildest hopes and dreams. These are all good things. However, I wish to not lose site of the fact that no matter what I achieve in this lifetime, I am ultimately a natural being – and one day my body will be lying in a casket – and return to dust or ash.

That is an overwhelmingly sobering thought; I better not get wrapped up in myself.

Thus I accept to have this mark placed right on my head, coincidentally the same location where the thoughts that spawn good and even bad develop. I believe that if I commit myself to construct these thoughts after the person represented by this cross, I can’t go wrong.

Thus, in response to the second question of who needs Ash Wednesday or even Lent for that matter – the answer is simple…

I do J

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