Ash Wednesday is a day that has been traditionally set aside for the contemplation of our own life’s brief nature, of our lack, and of our need for God’s grace and loving kindness. At the application of ashes (which is not considered a sacrament, although good practice), the priest or minister will often say “remember you are dust and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19), sometimes adding “Repent from all sin, and believe the Gospel.” The key practices of the season of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and Ash Wednesday sets the tone, or spirit, underlying the practices.
On this day, we are put in mind of our own mortality: ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Catholics, Congregationalists (UCC), Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and among others, practice this tradition, which hales from the Middle Ages, often with ashes from the burnt leaves of the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. It is traditional on Ash Wednesday to recite the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. – Isaiah 58
These words hold a deep truth that Jesus told his followers also, saying “find out what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matt. 9:13). Sacrifice, just for the outward show of it, will amount to nothing (Matt. 6:1-24). Sacrifice that reminds us of spiritual truth and strengthens a connection to God, and acts of mercy that connect us in a spirit of kinship are more in keeping with the spirit of the season.