Kick Ash: A Primer to Ash Wednesday

Today marks the start of Lent, the 40-day liturgical season that culminates on Easter morning. Thousands of faithful worshipers will wander back to work, school and home after the noon hour with ashes smeared on their foreheads. Still others will silently think to themselves when seeing these ash-people, “Is it just me or does she have dirt on her forehead?”

Whether you’re the one with ash on your head or the person who thinks they’re seeing things, today marks a big day for the Church of Jesus Christ: We celebrate his death. More specifically, we celebrate our death with him so that we can more fully celebrate being raised to new life with Christ, much like his resurrection after his death on the Cross.

As a lifelong Lutheran, I’ve celebrated Ash Wednesday for as long as I can remember. I’m familiar with the theology, thought and purpose behind Ash Wednesday. Scripture doesn’t command us to celebrate it, it’s simply one of the oldest traditions in the Christian Church that has literally been celebrated since the beginnings of the faith.

Ash Wednesday Fun Facts

That being said, not every Christian is familiar (or comfortable) with the idea of talking about death and letting someone smear what looks like cookout-remnants on one’s forehead.  So we can all get on the same page about this ancient tradition, here are some Lent “fun facts”:

  • Lent means “spring time” in Latin.
  • Ashes are commonly used in mourning rituals throughout Scripture. They signify mourning for one’s sin and repentance from that sin.
  • In the ancient church, Lent was used as a time of preparation for catechumens, or, those waiting to be baptized. Catechumens (i.e. “candidates” for the faith) studied church history, prayed and fasted and celebrated their faith with baptism on Easter Sunday.
  • Ash Wednesday wasn’t officially Ash Wednesday until the 11th century when Pope Urban II rubber stamped the event and made it official. As we all know, if the Pope ain’t happy, no one’s happy!

How to Celebrate the Day

If you’re in the Des Moines area, I’d encourage you to celebrate Ash Wednesday in one of three ways:

  1. Head to Lutheran Church of Hope’s West Des Moines’ campus at noon or 7pm.
  2. Head to Lutheran Church of Hope’s Ankeny campus at 5 and 7 pm.
  3. Join me and Gateway Church in downtown Des Moines at noon to celebrate Ash Wednesday at the Temple for Performing Arts.

Either way, take a steo pout of your comfort zone or continue in the tradition of your youth. Tradition, when connected to the life-giving power of the Spirit, is a powerful agent for change and a historical tie to our ancient roots.

Did you celebrate Ash Wednesday growing up? If so, what do you remember most from it? If you didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday, what are your thoughts surrounding the tradition?

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One Response to “Kick Ash: A Primer to Ash Wednesday”

  1. Jason Vana March 9, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    I grew up Catholic, so we celebrated Ash Wednesday every year during elementary school. I don’t observe Ash Wednesday the same way anymore (ie – ashes on my forehead), but I do take time during this day and reflect on my sin and figure out what I still need to die to.