Thoughts About Ash Wednesday

Thoughts About Ash Wednesday

I am the editor of Topic and communications officer for the diocese. I know this for a variety of reasons.  One of the reasons is that those words are on my business cards and the printing of those cards was organized by the administrative staff of the Diocese of New Westminster. That in itself (for me at least) is confirmation. I do not normally write editorials or blogs as I leave that to skilled contributors from around our diocese and beyond who have something to say. However, I am personally very much drawn to that “day of fasting”; that day that marks the first day of Lent as we western Christians observe it, Ash Wednesday.  For me this is the most important “Christian day”, closely followed by Good Friday but we will leave that for future blogposts.

Participation in Ash Wednesday liturgies and presenting one’s forehead for the Imposition of Ashes which many of us did on February 14, 2018, is for a good percentage of believers the only intentional, visual manifestation of our faith that demonstrates for others that we are followers of Jesus Christ. The funny thing is that if we stood on a street corner holding a Bible and asking people if they wanted to discuss even the most arcane concepts of liberal Catholicism (“you over there with the neckbeard…yes you…do have 15 minutes to talk about the Oxford Movement?”) the average person passing by would know that we were religious and probably a follower of some form of Christianity. But I’m not sure that the appearance of smudgy black crosses on people’s foreheads on a Wednesday in mid to late February (February 14 for 2018 {the irony of St. Valentine’s Day will not be wasted on many Anglicans}) communicates that message.  

The truth is that in the long run it doesn’t really matter if I think this does the job or not of communicating that the person modelling this dark smeary marking is a person committed to their faith.  What is important is that like the words on my business cards describing what my job is, the ashes on my forehead remind me and others that we are mortal, that our insouciance is challenged by the knowledge that our time here is limited.  Our participation in this Divine Liturgy/Ash Wednesday Eucharist does not depress us or diminish us but in fact it inspires us and gives us some courage and hope to direct our lives toward the promises made at our baptism when the substance  marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross was Holy Water not ashes.

Our choice to display the sign of the cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is not dire prophesy or apocalyptic (although I must admit that at almost every Ash Wednesday Eucharist I’ve attended I will look around at the crosses of ashes and recall the February 12, 1960 Twilight Zone episode entitled The Purple Testament where a lieutenant {played by William Reynolds) serving in World War II suddenly sees a strange glow on the faces of his comrades and figures out with the help of his commanding officer {played by Dick York of Darren Stevens fame} that the glow indicates who will be the next to die), it is about the present, the here and now. It is an acknowledgement that we are ready to be where we need to be and to do what we need to do to answer God’s call.

On a damp, windy Wednesday afternoon in February a number of years ago about 1pm I was late for a lunch date. I left the then-location of the Synod Office at 401West Georgia to walk down the hill to the corner of Georgia and Burrard in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I chose the south side of the street for my journey. As the traditional lunch hour was now concluding the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk was busy, however I couldn’t help but notice as I crossed Granville Street that the teeming mass in front of me mostly moving to the east from Howe Street was beginning to part exactly in the middle of the sidewalk. As the people moved to either side I saw the late Molly Ashworth, ODNW, her legs crippled with arthritis, virtually caving inward, her hands gripping the sides of her walker, moving slowly, each step though painful was deliberate and measured. She held her head high and on her forehead was the sign of the cross in ashes that she had just received while participating in the noon hour Ash Wednesday Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral. As Molly made her way east maintaining her course in the middle of the sidewalk, no one jostled her, no one laughed, jeered or pointed. Moving out of her way was not the action of people who were disturbed by what they saw, there deference was out of respect, respect for this person who knew who she was and where she was going.

(A version of this blog originally appeared as an op/ed in the February 2016 issue of Topic the monthly magazine of the Diocese of New Westminster distributed to Anglicans in the diocese as a section of the national publication, The Anglican Journal.)


Impostition of Ashes during the 12noon Eucharist at St. John the Evangelist, North Vancouver, February 14, 2018.