From the Anglican News service...
Why all the Ashes?
I was lucky enough to be in one of Professor Frederick Shriver's classesat General Seminary just before he retired. Father Shriver is not one tokeep his opinions to himself and I especially recall his thoughts aboutashes. "You know what I'd do if I were the rector of a church?" he askedour class. "You know what I'd do? I'll tell you what I'd do. At the endof the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I'd be at the back door with a bigwashrag. As people left the church, I'd wipe the ashes off theirforehead and remind them of the words of our Lord, "Beware of practicingyour piety before men in order to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1). Father Shriver had no time for religious pretence or hollow religiosity.
His sentiments are profoundly biblical, echoing the preaching of theprophets and the teaching of our Lord. Given this strong criticism ofoutward piety and given that at Saint Mary's we will offer ashes all dayon March 1, we might well ask ourselves, "Why all the ashes? Because ashes are a sign, they are a reminder, and ashes are aninvitation. Archaeologists tell us that the people of Israel were not alone in usingashes in rituals of purification. Ashes appear in Phoenician burial artand Arabic expressions. Ashes were a sign of grief, mourning,humiliation and penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among theashes. Cursed and overrun by enemies, the Psalmist "eats ashes likebread, and mingles tears with drink." Ashes are what are left afterdestruction.
After chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain. Ashes also remind us of a common origin. The second chapter of Genesistells of how we were created from the dust of the ground. Though we mayspend our lives trying to distinguish ourselves from others, runningafter success and trying to feel different from others, the dust andashes remind us that we are all made of the same stuff. We are remindednot only of our beginning but also of our end. On the First Day of Lent,ashes are imposed with the words, "Remember that you are dust, and todust you shall return." Those words apply to us all.
While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us torepentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life.Isaiah brings glad tidings to the people of Israel, "to give them agarland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning."Ashes are not the end but are just the beginning. They begin a seasonthat moves us through silence and longing into a season of joy andresurrection. Sunday, February 26 is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The musicwill be celebrative and the mood joyous. The alleluias will echo for thenext few days, until we reach the quiet of Ash Wednesday. On that day, may the ashes we receive be a sign of our humility and ourpenitence. May they remind us of our individual sins and the complexityof corporate sin. But more than anything, may the ashes invite us intoGod's presence, into God's love and into God's gift of new life.
Article from: Angelus On Line Newsletter, St Mary the Virgin EpiscopalChurch, New York by Father John Beddingfield