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Why Ashes? by Connie McNeill

Why Ashes? 

February 17, 2015

I don’t remember any mention of Ash Wednesday or Lent or Holy Week. We did make note that it was Palm Sunday and Easter. My faithful attendance at a rural non-cushioned-pew, mostly Baptist church, just didn’t include these things as I grew up. My Roman Catholic friends ate fish on Friday. I only knew that because we always had fish sticks at school on Fridays and not being one who enjoys repeat foods I asked why. My Lutheran friends would talk about what they had “given up for Lent” but I had no idea what they meant. My Methodist and Disciple friends always made a really big deal about Holy Week but I was never sure my calendar included that week.

Through the years, and choosing to deliberately understand the rich and robust elements of other Christian traditions, I have embraced many new traditions in my adult Christian life that give it deep meaning. I also now understand that these traditions have not belonged to only one tradition or another. Much of the Christian church has practiced these traditions and symbolic rituals in order to help bring spiritual renewal and vitality to the life of faith.

This coming Wednesday, February 18th is Ash Wednesday. It is a date that moves in relationship to when Easter occurs. It marks the beginning of Lent which is 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter on the calendar. It represents 40 days of fasting (abstaining from something one deliberately chooses to give up so that time can be spent in prayer and meditation; it generally is something that one will regularly desire so we are reminded of the sacrifice that Christ made). Forty days reminds us of the 40 days of Jesus fasting in the desert. One of the best “fasts” I ever observed was the year I abstained from Mexican food. I was frequently reminded of the sacrifice (almost daily cravings)! Sundays are traditionally not days of fast because on every Sunday we commemorate Christ’s resurrection. Wish I had known that at the time I gave up chips and salsa!

We call it Ash Wednesday because of the practice of wearing ashes in some way following a worship experience we have that day. The ashes traditionally come from the Palm branches used the previous year on Palm Sunday. That is, those that are retrieved from sword fights the children enjoy in the foyer after the service. These ashes are used as part of the tradition. Some understand this as a strictly Roman Catholic tradition but it is not. Many church traditions have observed this ritual for centuries.

But, why ashes? Because many times in the Bible, we see someone placing them on themselves as a sign of grief. Often accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth. So, in our tradition today, we receive ashes as a sign of grief for our sins, grief for any pain inflicted on our Christ, grief for our need (due to lack of faithfulness) to recommit ourselves to our Christ anew. Here’s where it still gets tricky for this non-cushioned-pew Baptist gal. I’m good up until the ashes are put on me. I observe Lent. I fast. I live for Holy Week. I always get emotional when I see the children come in waving the palm branches. I come to the evening services that week. I live for Easter! But the ashes are really uncomfortable for me.

Traditionally, ashes are used to make a small cross on one’s forehead.  We also allow people to have a cross of ashes made on one’s hand. In my tradition this is done by a minister. I usually participate and when I do I always receive them on my hand.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand….it’s a ritual and it only has meaning for me if it has the right meaning for me. I don’t have to stay away to avoid it just because I’m uncomfortable. I don’t have to let a little bit of ashes rob me of all the other meaningful ways I commemorate my Christ’s resurrection and my being an Easter people. There are some things that we cannot pick and choose about being a disciple of Jesus but my experiences of mercy and grace have convinced me that he doesn’t care where or if I get ashes as long as I get Easter. And, thanks be to God, I get Easter. I would offer the same to you if you are wondering “why ashes?”


Constance (Connie) McNeill
Second Baptist Church
Associate Pastor of Discipleship and Equipping

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Posted by Terri Soper at 4:17 PM
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