The alarming preponderance of dirty foreheads one will see today can only mean one thing: It’s Ash Wednesday. In light of the start of the Lenten season, National Review Online contacted a few of our spiritual advisers to explain why Lent is important, and what lessons it can teach us.
The symbolism of bodily marking can be found throughout the Bible. Cain receives a mark to warn others not to lay hands on this first murderer (Gen. 4:15). Slaves are marked as a badge of ownership (Exod. 21:6). In the book of Ezekiel, a heavenly messenger is commanded to place a mark on the foreheads of the righteous (Ezek. 9:4). The followers of Antichrist receive a mark of their own, on their foreheads and hands (Rev. 14:9). The forehead ashes received by Christians at the beginning of Lent are an ancient symbol of penance and sorrow. They might also be usefully thought of as a kind of brand or marking, signifying that even in an age that worships above all things the “freedom to choose,” the Christian is not his own. He is a servant, bought and paid for by a Master to whom he will answer for how he has used whatever freedom he has in this world.
– Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.FRANK HANNA
I try to remember that the ashes I wear are a sign to the world that I have sinned, and am in need of redemption. It is common enough for Christians to adopt holier-than-thou piety, and certainly the Ash Wednesday tradition could be abused as some type of virtuous merit-badge of church attendance and membership. Practically speaking, the potential for such abuse accompanies almost any devotional practice. Nevertheless, we must not be cowed by such possibilities, or by worldly misunderstandings. In the end, if we strive toward sincerity, the ashes are an acknowledgment before God and others that we have fallen, and that we are sorrowful and penitent.
– Frank Hanna is the author of What Your Money Means (and How to Use It Well).
MOLLIE ZIEGLER HEMINGWAY
At one of my former newspaper jobs, Fat Tuesday was a huge celebration. And yet when some of us showed up the next day with ashy smudges on our foreheads, we’d politely be notified we had dirt on our faces.
Referred to throughout Scripture as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality, ashes are imposed on the head as a powerful reminder that we are sinners who will die. They’re made in the sign of the cross to direct us to Jesus Christ as the way to forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in heaven.
They shouldn’t be worn to be showy or boastful but to serve as witness. And the practice is meaningless — hypocritical, even — unless there is a corresponding repentance and change of behavior.
No one likes to think of his or her sinfulness or mortality — we all wish Fat Tuesday were more meaningful than Ash Wednesday.
It’s important that we not confuse the important spiritual disciplines of Lent with the true purpose of Lent: to fix our eyes on Christ and to ponder the purpose, reasons and necessity of our Lord’s suffering and death to earn our salvation.
– Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes at GetReligion.org.
MOTHER MARY ASSUMPTA LONG, O.P.
The community’s sacristan was going around the convent collecting the palms from last year to be burned and sifted into ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday. These will be placed on our foreheads in the form of the cross with these or similar words, “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” These are sobering words, but none more true could be spoken to convey the one infallible truth that we will one day die. In an age where the body is materially glorified and the prevailing philosophy gives permission to do whatever we wish with our bodies, the thought that we are created by God and will continue forever to belong to God might be a worthy, though somewhat shocking, reminder that ashes are the results of a life that has ended. We, however, were created for better . . . our blessed ashes point us to the ‘death to self’ (through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) that will enliven us, even now, in preparation for our Eternity.
– Mother Mary Assumpta Long, O.P., is the Prioress General and one of four founding members of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.