One of my favourite school assembly topics is telling the pupils what happens on Ash Wednesday. Indeed I usually make some ash whilst I am there – burning the palm crosses and collecting the ash (having of course made sure that there is no fire alarm close by). I then show them how the ash is used to make the sign of the cross on the forehead. And I tell them to be on the look-out on Ash Wednesday for people wandering about with dirty faces!
Of course not all churches and not all individuals use the ceremony of the imposition of ashes. I certainly grew up in a church where it was not used and for a long time was very suspicious of it. However I now value it as something I treasure although perhaps that will change – who knows?
For me the accepting of the imposition of ashes is the expression of many things:
It is an expression of the ongoing recognition that I am like everybody else, that is say a far from perfect human being. Sin is simply a fact of my life as it is a fact of everybody else’s life. To say that is not to be morbid or negative it is simply to state the truth. Many things contribute to this human condition – instincts, hurts, the influence of others and weakness of resolve – to name just some. It is not that we will ever get our name in the paper for doing bad things but that we simply regularly behave in ways that harm ourselves, others and the life of the world. That is how we are and there is not a lot we can do about it – our efforts and energy don’t make much of an impression when we try to change.
The ash is imposed using the sign of the cross. This is an expression of the wonderful truth that in Christ God reaches out to us as we are. Our relationship with God is never based on our achievement or worthiness but rather on God’s initiative, generosity and forgiveness. Receiving the imposition of ashes is an expression of gratitude that this is the case and an expression of the desire to continue in a relationship which works on this basis.
To receive the ash is to express an openness to let this relationship bring about change in my life. It is to say to God that I want to be open to His love meeting my frailty each day afresh and out of that for new things to be possible. Of course even this is not easy, as even when we are happy to admit our need and acknowledge God’s forgiveness we can still be reluctant to be open to a new future, still be reluctant to brought to new understandings and different ways of being and doing. Nevertheless the hope is that through the touch of God’s love we may in some small ways behave so as to do a little less harm to ourselves, to others and to the world.
Of course you do not need to receive the imposition of ashes to express any of this. But to do so can be a helpful way of expressing it and expressing it can itself be helpful. And there is certainly nothing new in what is being expressed – the same themes are found elsewhere and indeed are amongst the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
So ‘to ash or not to ash’ that is the question. May you find the answer that helps you in your life of Christian discipleship.
The imposition of ashes will be available (not compulsory!) on Ash Wednesday (February 10th) at St Ninian’s Invergordon at the 10am Eucharist and at St James’ Dingwall at the 10.30am Eucharist and 7.00pm Eucharist with hymns.