The Christian fast of Ash Wednesday (February 10, 2016) falls, as always, seven weeks and five days before Easter (March 27, 2016). Attendance at Ash Wednesday services is declining, as is worship attendance generally. Consequently, some churches have started programs, sometimes known as Ashes on the Go, to make the imposition of ashes more readily available to busy people, e.g., on street corners.
Jesus warned people against turning religious observances into public demonstrations of one's piety. In twenty-first century North America and Europe, few people seem likely to be impressed by a person have a smudge of ashes on her/his forehead one day annually.
Indeed, wearing ashes, and by extension their public imposition, seems more likely to prompt queries from the puzzled or bemused than to cause anyone to regard the wearer of ashes as especially devote. Clearly, the contemporary spiritual ethos differs from Jesus' experience of people competing in public demonstrations of their piety.
So, why wear ashes?
First, ashes imposed with the words "Remember, you are dust," remind the wearer of an individual's insignificance within the broad scope of the cosmos. I could not begin to count the grains of sand (= dust) on the beach that I see while I write this posting, much less count all of the specks of dust in the vast reaches of the universe. A human body, which consists of approximately 17 trillion cells, is an incredible gift. However, that marvel pales in comparison to the cosmos' far vaster grandeur and to the mystery of life itself. Keeping my ego in proper perspective enables me to cultivate healthy relationships with self, others, the world, and God.
Second, ashes imposed with the words "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return," remind the wearer of one's personal morality. This annual reminder is a helpful inoculation against succumbing to our culture's exaltation of youth and youthfulness, with its implicit hope that the right technology and medical assistance may indefinitely delay infirmity and death. Birth inevitably leads to death.
Third, ashes historically signified sorrow for one's sins. The word sin (hamartia in Greek) connotes both falling short of the mark (sins of omission) and crossing the line (sins of commission). Nobody is perfect. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday encourages self-examination: What have I done that I should not have done? What have I failed to do that I should have done? Am I truly sorry for my failings? If so, can I repair any harm my failures caused? Why did I fail in those particular ways? How can I change, and how can God change me, so that I avoid similar failures in the future?
Finally, the annual observance of Ash Wednesday reminds us that neither time nor life is linear. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, describes spiritual progress as climbing a spiral staircase. Spiritual progress (or regress!) thus repeatedly affords one similar vistas, but from a slightly increased (or decreased) elevation. Lent is an excellent occasion to take stock of one's spiritual journey. Is your spiritual elevation increasing or decreasing? What is happening in your spiritual journey?