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The Meaning of the Ashes
by Rev. Frank Schaefer

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season which lasts for forty days until Palm Sunday.  Lent is a time for repentance, introspection, prayer and meditation. The Christian believer is invited to follow Jesus’ example of withdrawal into the "wilderness" for forty days. Just as Jesus fasted in the wilderness, so we are encouraged to fast during this season.  According to document fragments such as the Didache' we know that "Lent" originated in the early second-century of the Christian community.  It was then primarily a preparation time for Easter--a time for repentance, recommitment, and a time for instructing and preparing proselytes (new believers) in the faith to prepare them for baptism.

Note that the forty days before Easter do not include the Sundays because the Lord's Resurrection is supposed to be celebrated on each Sunday. This is also why the first day of Lent is a Wednesday. The wearing of a sign of ashes on one's forehead is a custom that precedes the early Christian community. Our Jewish forbears observed periods of fasting and repentance that were accompanied with signs such as the wearing of   ashes on their foreheads.  The Hebrew Scriptures give reference to this custom in 2 Samuel 13:19, Job 42:6, Jeremiah 6:26, among others.

In the Christian tradition, the ashes represent the believer's attitude of repentance and humility before God, as well as the realization and confession of our human sinful state even after our conversion and baptism. The ashes usually come from the burning of a few of the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration. They are mixed with olive oil, not merely because this way the ashes will stick better to people's foreheads, but because the olive oil symbolizes God's intention to restore us to wholeness.

The good news about wearing the sign of the ashes is that we believe in God's grace and forgiveness when we confess our sins and show true remorse over our sins.   The bottom line is that God is good!  All the time!