Ash Wednesday is one of the most solemn days of the church year. This liturgy marks the beginning of a penitential discipline climaxing on Maundy Thursday. The mood is penitential and reflective on our baptismal faith and life.
Originally, Lent was the time when candidates for Holy Baptism were intently preparing to be baptized at the Vigil of Easter. We, too, in this season of Lent prepare ourselves to remember our Baptism at Easter as we ritually “pass over” with Jesus from death to new life.
Ash Wednesday, worshipers will have the opportunity to receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of penitence and baptismal remembrance. The ashes are prepared by burning palm branches from last Palm Sunday. In a dramatic way, God’s judgment and condemnation of sin upon the cross is received in our frailty and total dependence on God with humiliation and repentance. The words spoken as ashes are imposing, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” were first spoken to Adam after his fall into sin. We are forcefully reminded of the words of the committal in the Christian Burial service, “… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ashes also suggest cleansing and renewal. They were once used as a cleaning agent. Thus, ashes imposed in the shape of a cross symbolize both judgment and baptismal cleansing.