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Ash Wednesday: A Little Dust or Much More?
=Dr Harry Hagopian, Outreach Coordinator, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation

9 February   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Hearken, O Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against Thee.

Crying, we raise our eyes to Thee, Sovereign King, Redeemer of all. Listen, Christ, to the pleas of the supplicant sinners. Thou are at the Right Hand of God the Father, the Keystone, the Way of salvation and Gate of heaven, cleanse the stains of our sins.

Attende Domine - Hearken, O Lord - 10 th century Mozarabic hymn

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ... this expressive and somewhat morbid phrase comes from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer , and is sourced on the Book of Genesis, In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).

But it is just a bit of ash after all, isn't it? And what are ashes anyway? They are the product of burning something away. They are what is left over after a fire, the waste once the heat and light have died down. Ashes also take me back to my childhood years in Jerusalem. We had a wood fireplace in our house, and dad often stressed that it was my job to take the ashes out. So I would either dispose of them in the trash bin in our backyard or perhaps mum would use them as fertiliser for the garden if we were running out of compost!

But if ashes are useless, why do so many Christians - particularly Catholics, Anglicans and many Protestant denominations - put ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent? Where did this peculiar tradition come from, and what does it mean? First of all, the ashes are a reminder of who we are: God moulded the first human being out of dust from the earth, and then God breathed life into that dust. Without the breath or Spirit of God, we remain just like these ashes: lifeless, inanimate and dreary in so many different ways.

Ashes placed on our foreheads are also signs of repentance. The forty-day Lenten period is a time when we mourn our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent and change our ways. In biblical times, it was common for people in mourning to dress in sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. Hence the expression 'sackcloth and ashes', For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes (Lk 10:13).

But they probably placed the ashes on top of their heads. So why put a cross on the forehead? It is a sign that we are sealed for Christ. Often, when a baby is baptised, the priest marks the child with the sign of the cross. The cross of ashes is a reminder of the mark of the Lamb. In his A Commentary on the Epistles of St John in 1837, the German scholar GCF Lücke reminded his readers that the New Testament Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse, as he introduced this book in biblical circles) refers to an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation (Rev 7). Those faithful who are crossed, he commented, would then be protected and their mark translated into one of ownership. It is important also to use palm branches to make these ashes since palms are a symbol of victory and our victories are but ashes before the glory of God.

Ashes are a symbol of our need for God since we are nothing but dust and ashes when we are apart from God. They are also a symbol of our repentance and sorrow. Ashes are a way of showing on the outside what is happening on the inside. We are truly mournful for the evil or wounding acts we have done. Our surrender to our own overweening pride, as one of the seven deadly sins introduced by Pope Gregory the Great in the 16 th century, has tarnished the image of Christ in us. Yet, in the midst of our repentance from our vainglories, we are forgiven and redeemed as children of God. The very burning away of our sin by the fire of God's love makes us God's own. And as his own, we become children of God through the cross.

The prophet Joel, in his book of oracles {in Joel 2:12-14}, points to the fact that works of penance, if not related to that inner conversion to God in love, are worthless.   Whatever has happened in the past, God is merciful and willing to forgive.

Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.

Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind blessing-grain and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

The majority of Armenians who are Orthodox do not apply the custom of Ash Wednesday. Exceptions are Armenian Catholics or Evangelicals, as well as very few Armenian Orthodox churches that emulate this practice at Dyarnuntaratch [Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord to the Temple, in Lk 2:21-40, also known as Hypapante or Candlemas ] as a possible throwback to earlier bonfire customs and lore. But whether or not Christians follow this paschal preparation during the Lenten period starting today, surely Ash Wednesday defines a moral challenge for us all in 2005?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   9 February


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