Wednesday, March 01, 2006

DIES CINERUM or Why A Bit Of Ash On The Noggin May Be Good For You

Today is Ash Wednesday.

For some of you, that is a sort of nebulous holiday some Christians celebrate.

I'm an Evangelical, Southern Baptist to be precise. (Okay, so we're going to a non-denominational church right now, but hubby and I have been members of SBC's since we married in 1983, and I for two years prior to that.) We worship plainly, at least I have in the churches I've attended. No crucifixes. No images on the colored glass windows. No icons to kiss. No statues to venerate. Only this: A plain wooden cross over the baptistry. And flowers. And a big honking Bible on a table.

But I'm also a lover of metaphor and symbol. God is, too, have you noticed? And I am moved and value the symbolism of the ash on the forehead.

I grew up Roman Catholic, so I know what it feels like to walk around besmudged after being solemnly reminded that, I am "dust, and to dust" I "shall return." (Barring the glorious appearing of the Lord and my being snatched away, transformed, bypassing a terminal case of dustiness.)

Dies Cinerum. The Day of Ashes.

Ashes as a sign of repentance, of grief over sin, of mourning, is quite Biblical. Think of Job, after all his trials, all his questions, finding himself scolded by the Almighty and holding a whole new perspective: "Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).

Ashes. And images of ashes:

Tamar sitting in horror and wailing, her head covered in ashes, after her brother Amnon rapes her. (2 Sam 13:19) Jeremiah calling for Israel to repent and "roll in ashes." (Jer 6:26) An ashy Daniel, praying and fasting. (Dan 9:3) The King of Nineveh sitting in ashes, effectively staving off the destruction God sent Jonah to prophesy would come if the nation did not repent. (Jonah 3:6)

And the words of our Lord himself: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).

Ash Wednesday is not a holy day kept by the Church at all times and in all places and by all believers. It...
is mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, and probably dates from at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his Lives of the Saints, he writes, "We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."
(The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday) has an article that states this:
Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960.

So, yeah, don't feel obligated. I don't. But be moved. I am.

My generation of Jesus People focused a lot on the happy shiny side of things--total forgiveness, eternal security (some of us, anyway), everlasting mercy, joy, the Rapture, the coming Kingdom, the gifts of the Spirit, the abundant life, clapping hands, singing perky worship songs, and feeling good all over about loving Jesus.

A visit to the House of Sorrow now and then is a good thing.

Sin is still real. Sin is still crouching at the door. Sin is still wanting to eat us up. (Not to mention that roaring, prowling lion of an adversary.) And if we say we do not sin, we make God a liar.

We sin.

I sin. Quite a bit, omission, commission, in thought, in deed... Every day.

So, today, let's stop and focus on that. The Children of Abraham have Yom Kippur for fasting and repenting. We have Ash Wednesday and Lent as the traditional time to remember that we offend a Holy God in myriad ways all our life, and we ought to be sorry for "having offended Thee." We ought to mourn. We ought to weep over our failings before the Holiest Being, because God has been so very, very good and merciful and patient, providing salvation at His own expense and ever ready to forgive.

Life is short. You will die. Memento Mori.

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return."

That's one of the formulas, one of the things a minister may say, when smudging those ashes on your forehead. Here is another:

"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel."

Oh, yes. How can being told this be bad?

If you wish, join me in reading some of the standard readings (Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Catholic) for this day, Ash Wednesday, Dies Cinerum, even if your forehead is spotless:

Psalm 51:1-10 (ESV)
1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

Psalm 103:8-14 (ESV)
8The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

Joel 2:12-18 (NKJV)

12 “ Now, therefore,” says the LORD,

“ Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
13 So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
14 Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him—
A grain offering and a drink offering
For the LORD your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast,
Call a sacred assembly;
16 Gather the people,
Sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and nursing babes;
Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber,
And the bride from her dressing room.
17 Let the priests, who minister to the LORD,
Weep between the porch and the altar;
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD,
And do not give Your heritage to reproach,
That the nations should rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples,

‘ Where is their God?’”
18 Then the LORD will be zealous for His land,
And pity His people.

1 Corinthians 6:2 (NAB)
For he says, "In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you."

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.



Marian Merritt said...


It's amazing that you've posted on Ash Wednesday. I just returned from our Ash Wednesday service. During the service our pastor read a passage from Mark 6:50 (NIV) and I thought of you and the comment you left on Heather Tipton's blog. I felt strongly moved to share this scripture with you. And Lo and behold, your blog has the very same words from Psalms 51:1-10 that was recited at our service tonight!
Yes, I sit here typing these words with a cross of ashes on my forehead. But, more importantly, I send this message with a heart filled with awe at the majesty and glory of the One who suffered so for me.

Thanks for the words. I hope you "take courage" from the scripture.

Mirtika said...

THANK YOU. Yes, Jesus is always speaking to me through:

"Take courage; it is I, (AY)do not be afraid."


Camy Tang said...

Nice post, Mir! It made me think (for a change!LOL)

Carol Collett said...