This week marks the beginning of the Lenten season for many Christians, a time of preparation, repentance, and renewal. But unlike every other year for at least the last millennium, this year for many Lent will not begin by marking a sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. Today may be the first Wednesday of Lent, but it is likely to be an “Ash-less Wednesday” for most. The need to care for one another by limiting in-person contact to reduce the chance of spreading COVID has claimed congregational singing, preaching in person, the sharing of bread and wine, and now even the marking of our foreheads with ashes.
Ashes have been part of this day’s liturgical observances going back to the 6th century in at least some places. Their formalization in the Western church’s customary was made universal in the 11th century. Even in my part of the wider Christian family, which broke away from Roman Catholicism during the Reformation five centuries ago, the use of ashes on this day took a mere 250-year hiatus before working its way back into our traditions and customs. It is one that many faithful Christians of all stripes may find themselves missing this year.
But even if the ashes are not available to us this year, it feels like more than ever, the spiritual meaning of this comforting ritual remains clearly before all of us, whatever our faith tradition may be. Because the meaning of the ashes is to visibly acknowledge two central aspects of what it means to live a good life: to embrace humility and humanity.
Humility comes from the Latin root humus, meaning earth or dirt. To be humble is to be close to the ground, close to the dirt. Not too haughty or high, but willing to bow one’s head down and re-root oneself in the earth when we have begun to drift away and need re-grounding. Humility is a kind of repentance that honors our true self, a surrender or giving up that brings us closer to who we are, literally, closer to the hummus, to the dust from which were formed. The call to humility is not the same as a call to humiliation. Humility affirms human dignity. By contrast, humiliation is a self-abnegation based on shamefulness and self-loathing, which can never affirm our inherent worth and dignity. In times of repentance, God desires our humility, for humiliation has no place in a life with God.
Humanity, in this context, means our mortality. The ashes remind us not just of our call to humble repentance, but also of the fact that all human life is fragile and finite. For Christians, the season of Lent is framed by two days of fasting: Good Friday, in which we confront Jesus’ death, and Ash Wednesday, in which we confront our own. We live in a culture that, most years at least, tends to push aside the fact of our mortality. We buy things, watch screens, conquer others, and distract ourselves, all to avoid having to acknowledge that our time on earth is limited. Ash Wednesday frees us from this denial, at least for a day, when we wear our mortality openly on our heads. It frees us from having to deny what is a tender truth: that life is brief and fragile, and that this brevity and fragility should turn us towards each other in love, not away from each other in fear.
When a priest administers the ashes, she or he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But is there any chance this year that we have forgotten this?
This year, we need no reminders about our mortality or our need for humble repentance. Most of us by now have lost someone we know, or even loved, to COVID. All of us have had to surrender to this virus in many aspects of our familiar routines and make many turns in our manner of life to protect ourselves and others. We may not have ashes to wear this year, but clearly, our humanity and humility are already marked upon us. Can’t you see it? In the wrinkles and worried brows of our elders’ foreheads? In the bags under tired parents’ eyes from restless nights? In the tear stains on our children’s’ cheeks grieving all the losses? We are marked this year, not by ashes, but by life.
I wonder if, as we pass each other hurriedly in shops or on the sidewalk today, we will notice how our neighbors have been marked by the ashes of life this year. I wonder if we will see in their foreheads and eyes and cheeks the same reminders of the need to embrace our own humility and mortality, that ashes might offer us. Because this year, we’re all wearing ashes. They’re just hard to see behind our masks and through our tears.
The Rev. Chris Wendell has served as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church since 2011, and lives in Bedford with his family.