I grew up in a non-liturgical church, and I always wondered why Roman Catholics (the only liturgical church in my hometown) got ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. Even after I joined a liturgical church, it took several years for me to really appreciate the Ash Wednesday observance. I wondered if it wasn’t contrary to Jesus’ instruction:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. … When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” ~ Matthew 5-6, 16-18, NIV
However, Jesus also said:
“If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” ~ Luke 9:26 NIV
I’m not ashamed of Jesus and His words, and I don’t want him to be ashamed of me.
The Ash Wednesday observance has become important to me as an excellent way to begin a season of penitence in Lent. Certainly, we should be penitent at all times, but most of us benefit from a structured time of prayer, fasting, and penitence.
Jesus himself went into the desert and fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights. If He felt He needed that time with the Father, I certainly do. Father Chip Harper’s Ash Wednesday liturgy lesson and the description of Lent on the All Saints’ Web site explain it much better than I can.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ Ash Wednesday Collect, 1928 Book of Common Prayer