Signs & Symbols: Ashes

Symbols connect us to something beyond our experience and understanding and on Ash Wednesday we have a special service where ashes are used to mark each person’s forehead with the sign of the cross – known as the Imposition of Ashes. Here in the Went Valley Parishes we  follow this ancient practice on the first day of Lent.

It’s a strange feeling; first the grittiness when they are first placed, then a tingling sensation, then a time of self-consciousness of knowing they are there like a dirty smudge.  Lastly comes the ‘Decision’.  Should I wipe them away before leaving the church or later?  

But what is the point of it all?  

There are many references in the Bible to people using ashes as signs of either penitence or preparation for an important event (Jeremiah 6:26).  In church records, ashes are used for penitents by the sixth century, but it is not until the beginning of the eleventh century that the faithful took part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes.  It is only later that this came to be called Ash Wednesday.

At first clergy and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads.

In the twelfth century the custom developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – and in most churches this is still how they are made today.

Over the centuries the emphasis of meaning for the imposed ashes has changed, from a preparation for baptism, a renewal of baptismal vows, to an understanding of a community’s preparation for the event of the Paschal mystery of rebirth at Easter.

As the minister says the traditional words “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you will return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. Amen.” what will you be focusing upon? The cross is a wonderful symbol connecting heaven and earth.

May God bless you as Lent begins. Your friend and vicar, Adrian

Read more about Lent here.

Pancake day ideas:

Thick yummy pancakes smothered with ice cream, maple syrup, and topped with hundreds and thousands or maltesers.  Or simply with lemon and sugar - simply the best. Pancake day is always the day before Ash Wednesday and is when traditionally the lenten fast would begin and so all the special things would be used up to make pancakes. Do you think of eggs milk and fat as special? Times change, and our society continues to change. You can even buy pancake mix!