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What’s With the Messy Black Smudge on Your Forehead?

No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you are typically surprised, quickly followed by recognition. It’s that day once per year when the last thing you expected when going to the grocery store, to the gym, out to eat, or walking into work, you see people with a messy looking black smudge on their foreheads.

I have managed to fly on Ash Wednesday the last two years, only to grin at the number of people seated on the plane with that oily ash mark.

For many who grew up in the Protestant or Evangelical tradition, Ash Wednesday was most likely not part of your faith practice. It might seem oddly ritualistic. So, what’s it all about?

Before we get to the history of the day itself, we can look closely at the Bible to find countless examples of people marking their bodies with ashes as a spiritual symbol of humility, repentance, and mourning. See the story of Ester (4:1), Job (42:6), Jonah (3:5-6), Moses (Exodus 9:8-10), and Isaiah (61:3, 44:20) for starters.

The usage of Ashes continues into the New Testament and in the early church writings of Tertullian and Eusebius. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which dates at least to the 8th century.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, in which we are invited to spiritually sojourn with Jesus to Jerusalem and his ultimate crucifixion. It is a spiritual season of reflection, prayer, confession, sacrifice, and growth.

Being marked with Ash is an outward symbol of an inward spiritual commitment. It is a way of saying that we are finite creatures, “Remember you are dust, and dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), loved by an infinite Creator who calls us to change our way of thinking and living each day through Jesus. The ashes used come from the burned branches of Palm Sunday mixed with oil.

I want to invite you on this Lenten journey, beginning with Ash Wednesday on February 17. We will be hosting a drive-thru service. Participants will enter the ball field parking lot, receive ashes and a liturgy handout between 12:00-12:30 pm.

Please enter the side of the parking lot directly next to the baseball field, pulling around to the chapel building, and exiting onto Leeward. You are welcome to pull into a parking spot near the office to read through the provided liturgy.

May we experience what the great Thomas Merton wrote, “We are not converted only once in our lives but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ.”


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