Today, March 1, Christians around the world will engage in a ritual at least 1,400* years old: Ash Wednesday.
As the priest marks their foreheads in the sign of the cross with the ashes of palm fronds from Palm Sunday of the year before, Anglican worshippers will meditate on the words from the Book of Common Prayer: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Some will do this inside a church or chapel. Others may take advantage of the recent trend among churches and dioceses, such as the diocese of Edmonton, of providing “ashes to go” at train stations and university campuses.
The imposition of ashes has its roots that go all the way back to Jewish practices of sprinkling ashes on one’s forehead as a sign of dejection and contrition, but during the first centuries of the Christian church, the imposition of ashes became associated with Lent, the period of fasting and penitence before Easter that mirrors Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.
By the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, the “Day of Ashes” had become an official part of the liturgy.
While few modern-day Anglicans or Roman Catholics still rigorously observe the traditional practice of fasting on Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, it is still common for some to give up foods they particularly enjoy, such as chocolate, for the duration of Lent.
More common still is for Western Christians to approach Lent as a time for introspection, an opportunity to reflect on the theological questions of sin and redemption underpinning the Easter story-or, in the case of a 2017 Lenten study planned by Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Vancouver, in the diocese of New Westminster, an opportunity for those new to the faith to learn more about its basic tenets.
Many Canadian Anglican churches host Lenten study groups, where parishioners meet regularly throughout the season to consider spiritual questions, and several dioceses and national bodies have created resources to guide Anglicans through what is often called the “Lenten journey.”
Some of these resources are more innovative, such as the Lenten calendar put out by the Green Churches network, which provides tips for reducing one’s carbon footprint, or The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund’s (PWRDF) Lent book, which ties Lenten spirituality to material questions of food security.
Others are more traditional, like the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s (SSJE) daily email, which includes a short video and prayer for personal devotions based on understanding the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission as “Five Marks of Love.”
Every year, the Anglican Church of Canada compiles a list of the tools available for local churches and individual Anglicans to facilitate their own Lenten devotions. It also links to resources, including those from the diocese of Huron, the Citizens for Public Justice and the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer.
* The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church