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So Easter is upon us. But the darkness of Good Friday has to be endured before the time of waiting and the anticipation of resurrection. This is always the Christian story. The ashes and the glory go together - a thought which makes looking back on where we have come from this Lenten season an important part of the continuing journey forward.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust"… this expressive but perhaps somewhat morbid phrase comes from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer, and is sourced on the Book of Genesis:
"In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19)
But it is just a bit of ash after all, isn't it? And what are ashes anyway? They are the product of burning something away. They are what is left over after a fire, the waste once the heat and light have died down. Those ashes in fact take me back to my own childhood years in Jerusalem. We had a wood fireplace in our house, and dad often reminded me that it was my job to take the ashes out every night. So I would either dispose of them in the trash bin in our backyard or perhaps mum would use them as fertiliser for the garden if we were running out of compost.
But if ashes are useless, why do so many Christians – particularly Catholics, Anglicans and some Protestant denominations but not so much Orthodox churches – put ashes on their foreheads at the start of Lent? Where did this peculiar tradition come from, and what does it mean? First of all, the ashes are a reminder of who we are: God moulded the first human being out of dust from the earth, and then God breathed life into that dust. Without the breath or Spirit of God, we remain just like these ashes: lifeless, inanimate and ever so dreary in many different ways.
Ashes placed on our foreheads are also signs of repentance. The forty-day Lenten period is a time when we mourn our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent and change our ways. In biblical times, it was common for people in mourning to dress in sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. Hence the expression ‘sackcloth and ashes’: "For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes" (Luke 10:13).
But they probably placed the ashes on top of their heads. So why put a cross on the forehead? It is a sign that we are sealed for Christ. Often, when a baby is baptised, the priest marks the child with the sign of the cross. The cross of ashes is a reminder of the mark of the Lamb. In his A Commentary on the Epistles of St John in 1837, the German scholar GCF Lücke reminded readers that the New Testament Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse, as he introduced this book in biblical circles) refers to an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation (Revelation 7). Those faithful who are crossed, he added, would then be protected and their mark translated into one of ownership. It is important also to use palm branches to make these ashes since palms are a symbol of victory and our victories are but ashes before the glory of God.
Ashes are a way of showing on the outside what is happening on the inside. We are truly mournful for the malevolent or wounding acts committed against others. Our surrender to our overweening pride, as one of the seven deadly sins introduced by Pope Gregory the Great in the 16th century, has tarnished the image of Christ in us. Yet, in the midst of our repentance from our vainglories, we are forgiven and redeemed as children of God because He loves us. The burning away of our sin by the fire of God’s love makes us God’s own. We become children of God through the cross.
The prophet Joel, in his Book of Oracles (in Joel 2:12-14), points out that works of penance, if not related to that inner conversion to God in love, are worthless. Whatever has happened in the past, God is merciful and willing to forgivene.
"Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
"Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
"Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind blessing-grain and drink offerings for the Lord your God."
I share those few reflections with you because it is helpful to remind readers that Christianity is not a Western monopoly but has at its background Middle Eastern Christians - local, indigenous, native, usually with dark complexions, largely Arab but with various other ethnicities, living in small numbers alongside Jews and Muslims – and for whom such traditions keep the faith alive.
Mind you though, the majority of Armenian Orthodox Christians – my ethnic group – do not apply this custom except for the few churches that emulate this practice at Dyarnuntaratch [Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord to the Temple, in Luke 2:21-40, also known as Hypapante or Candlemas] as a throwback perhaps to earlier bonfire customs and lore.
Ashes and Lent aside, as we approach Easter, surely the real – and deeper – question for us all is that the practice of repentance and the anticipation of glory represents a moral challenge and a timely reminder to many of us. Put simply, are we slowly becoming post-Christian in our beliefs or commitments, and Christian only in our mannerisms or rituals?
Adapted from the author's Premier Christian Radio blog: http://www.premier.org.uk/PremierBlogs/MENA.aspx
* Easter reflections from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/Easter
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopianTweet