A teacher in Bountful, Utah, last week ordered a student to remove an ashen cross from his forehead. This student, the only Roman Catholic student in the class, attended an Ash Wednesday service, where the priest applied a cross made of ashes to his forehead. The student returned to class, only to be ordered by his teacher to wipe the cross from his forehead. The school apologized to his family for the teacher’s actions and placed her on administrative leave.
There has been a lot of talk about this incident, with opinions running the gamut on social media. But instead of adding my opinion, I would like to explain what is Ash Wednesday, its history and practices, and what it means for Christians as we have now entered the penitential and preparatory season of Lent.
Lent is an Old English word that means “spring,” which is fitting, as this season is generally observed in the spring of the year, although in some years Lent is observed in the later part of winter due to an early date of Easter. While there are records of some type of observation in the second century, there wasn’t widespread observance of Lent until after the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.).
After this ecumenical council of the Church had met, the practice of fasting had become widespread, though to varying degrees in different areas of the Christian Church. The practice of fasting, or giving something up, for Lent has its roots in Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for 40 days prior to Satan tempting Him (Matthew 4) as a way for Christians to symbolically trace their Lord’s way to the cross on Good Friday and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The season of Lent lasts 40 days, excluding Sundays. If anyone chooses to fast or give up something for Lent, the Sundays in Lent were days to break the fast, only to resume it the next day,
The Lenten season, as observed in many denominations of the Church, begins on Ash Wednesday. The day gets its name from the ancient practice of wearing sackcloth covered with ashes as a sign of one’s penance. An Early Church Father, Isidore of Seville, said of this practice: “It is good, therefore, that a penitent deplore his sin in sackcloth and ashes, for in the sackcloth is harshness and the prick of sin; and the ashes, moreover, display the dust of death.”
It wouldn’t be until the end of the 11th century when the imposition of ashes upon the penitents’ foreheads became the norm, thanks to a decree by Pope Urban II in 1090. At some point this practice fell out of use in the Lutheran Church (which began in the 16th century), but in recent decades it has returned as a staple in Lutheran liturgical tradition.
On Ash Wednesday, the rite of the Imposition of Ashes serves as a reminder to worshipers of their sinful nature, and that all will die on account of their sins, returning to the dust of the ground, from which God created man. The worshipers then come forward as the pastor or priest places ashes upon their foreheads in the shape of the cross, speaking the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” a reminder of God’s words to sinful Adam in Genesis 3. The ashes are made by burning the palm leaves used at Palm Sunday the previous year, and, to make sure the ashes stick to the penitents’ foreheads, the ashes are mixed with some extra-virgin olive oil.
The color for Ash Wednesday is either purple or black. Purple is the color for Lent. Purple thread, among other colored threads, was used in making a robe for Moses’ brother Aaron the priest, that he would minister in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle (Exodus 39). Purple is also the color of royalty; in the Gospels of Mark and John, the Roman soldiers placed a purple robe and crown of thorn on Jesus, mocking the King of the Jews. Black is the color of ashes and death; in the Lutheran Church, black is also the color for Good Friday.
So when you see on Ash Wednesday someone who has a black cross on their forehead, you can be assured that they have been to an Ash Wednesday service. Christians wear the ashen cross not to say they are better than anyone else, but as a visible reminder of our own sinfulness and our need for our Savior, Jesus, to die in our place on the cross, to win our forgiveness there and give it to us in His Word, in Baptism, and in His Supper.
Lent is a penitential season, as we reflect more intentionally and intensely upon our sinfulness and need for a Savior. It is also preparatory, as we look forward to Easter, when we celebrate His resurrection from the dead. “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man,” Jesus (1 Cor. 15:49).
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.