In my tradition, we celebrated Ash Wednesday last night, February 1st. Kimberly Winston wrote the following about the origins of this ritual in the Huffington Post in an article entitled Ash Wednesday Explained: The Meaning Behind the Dust:
“There is no mention of Ash Wednesday in the Bible. But there is a tradition of donning ashes as a sign of penitence that predates Jesus. In the Old Testament, Job repents “in dust and ashes,” and there are other associations of ashes and repentance in Esther, Samuel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. By the 10th century, the monk Aelfric tied the practice, which dates to the eighth century, to the period before Easter, writing, ‘Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.’ By the 11th century, the practice was widespread throughout the church — until Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, threw the practice out in the 16th century because it was not biblically based. There’s no Lent in the Bible, either, though many Christians see it as an imitation of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and battling with Satan in the desert.”
These days, a number of Christian denominations place ashes in the sign of the cross on the foreheads of worshippers including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC and Moravians. Yet, in spite of its widespread use, I found plenty of Christian writers bashing the ritual because of its “pagan” origins.
So I did a little digging, and this is what I found:
- It appears that in ancient Nordic Pagan religion, ashes were placed above the brow to ensure the protection of the Norse God, Odin. The practice spread to Europe during the Viking conquests. It also appears that this ritual was done on a Wednesday, the day named for Odin, Odin’s Day.
- In Hinduism vibhuti, meaning “sacred ash,” place three horizontal lines across their foreheads and other body parts to please the god Shiva.
(If you have any further information and/or insight to share on this subject, please do so in the comment section. Thanks!)
There are a number of Christian blogs and web sites who bash the ritual of Ash Wednesday and warn people not to observe it because of it’s Pagan origins. If you’ve read my blog, you know I find this humorous because Christianity incorporated and adapted numerous beliefs and rituals from their Pagan brothers and sisters. Ashes are only the tip of a very large iceberg!
Personally, I love the ritual because it gives me a fresh perspective as I enter the season of Lent: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the words that accompany the ashes that are placed on foreheads in the sign of the cross. The words and ashes remind us that life is short and we should life it to the fullest. The cross reminds me of my connection to Jesus who calls me to live a life that is centered in love of the Divine, love of neighbor, and love of self. The cross also reminds me to consider what destructive patterns of living and thinking I need to let go of, in order that new ones can be nurtured in my life.
This year, as I received my ashes, I also thought of its connection with my Pagan friends who have also used ashes in ritual to remind them of their connection to the Divine. I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Copyright, ©2017 by David Taliesin. http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com