Ash Wednesday

I was born on an Ash Wednesday, which I know because my mother tells me her father came to the hospital to see us, and he had ashes on his forehead. A few years ago, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why Ash Wednesday was the kickoff for Lent. Lent coincided with the 40 days in the wildnerness, the palms of the future Sunday have their precedent, yet I could not recall a specific about the ashes, even though I attended church most of my life and studied religion at college and in graduate school.

Of course, as I went to research this post, I could not find links that confirm what I found before. There are several links about Catholicism, all of which say similar things–the use of ashes dates from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, but its origins before that are murky. Ashes are a sign of repentance, humility, and mortality, all three of which figure prominently as themes of Lent. There is no specific text in the Bible that calls for ashes to be used on the eve of Lent; ashes were an adaptation to Lent as of about the 8th century CE.

The connection I recall, but cannot find, is between Ash Wednesday and the scapegoat. On Yom Kippur, two goats were set out. One was sacrificed to God, the other heard the people’s sins and was sent out into the wilderness as atonement for them. While Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness is parallel to the goat that was sent off, the ashes are perhaps a physical reminder of the goat that was sacrificed.

In any case, the connections are murky and interesting, and have no clear antecedents in either the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. The image of the ashes on the forehead is a powerful one, and one that many people seek even when they forego church at other times. But it is not clearly grounded in early Christian tradition like most assume it to be.

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