“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants.”
Once upon a time, you needed to qualify for ashes on Ash Wednesday. They were reserved for notorious sinners, those whose evil deeds had cut them off from the communion of the Church. Like more than one of our inherited Lenten practices, the ashes were originally part of the church’s discipline for flagrant lawbreakers—thieves, adulterers, murderers, those who actions brought scandal to all those who profess Christ’s Name.
Forty days before Easter, these lawbreakers would come to the courtyard before the church barefoot and dressed in sackcloth, confessing their misdeeds. These penitents, as they were called, would heap ashes on their heads, as God’s people had done in ancient times. This was a a way of expressing their sorrow for their sins. The whole community would surround them, chanting the seven Penitential Psalms, which exalt God’s mercy for the wicked. The bishop would read from Genesis about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. Then the penitents would be sent away, forbidden from entering the church door. They could return after they had proved their intention to make a new start through a rigorous fast.
It must have been a dramatic thing to behold, full of the power of these ancient symbols. The ceremony surely emphasized that our sins matter deeply to God, and that they affect our brothers and sisters. It underlined the fact that our sins have deep consequences we cannot quickly brush away. The ceremony would have pointed the attention of all to the fact that we must stand before God’s judgment seat, and that while time remains, we should turn and beg His pardon and forgiveness.
For the first Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer drew up a service for Ash Wednesday, “The Commination, or Denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgment against Sinners.” In the preface to that liturgy, which is the direct ancestor of the one we use today, Cranmer pines a bit for that ancient ceremony. He calls it a “godly discipline” and says that its restoration is “much to be wished.” We may object a bit about how, as they say, “the optics would work” for expelling sackcloth-clad sinners in our courtyard today.
What interests me most is how the lines got drawn between those ancient courtyards and what we will do today. Over time, the rigorous discipline and the power of the church courts that were meant to enforce it weakened. But the discipline was weakened in part in part because the people in the crowd wanted a part of the action. Those ones whose sins were very ordinary and hidden from the world decided it was only fair that they take on part of the penitents’ discipline for themselves.
People started out chanting the Psalms, especially Psalm 51 that we will say together today, as a way of encouraging someone else’s repentance. But then they found their own evildoing in its words, and began asking for mercy for themselves as well. They fasted at first in solidarity with the scandalous sinners, but then they saw that their own mistakes also were grievous in God’s eyes. And eventually, they asked the priests if they could have ashes as well, a sign of mortality, a reminder that sin has but one wage—for the murderer, the petty gossip and the grumbler. You also “are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
It’s not that distinctions between sins don’t matter, because the Bible clearly makes them. But we do stand together in the dock, each of us fallen short of God’s glory. And we live in the knowledge that for all of us, Christ will return at an hour we do not expect. Today is the day of salvation, if only we will turn to Him and seek His grace.
Our Old Testament lesson describes a great moment of common repentance in Israel’s history. The whole people gather to fast and repent of their sins, as an invasion threatens. The elders are to come, even the children, the bride and the bridegroom leave the joys of their chamber, to come and beg for God’s mercy. Their sins are different. Some are hidden, others shouted from the housetops.
But they confess them together. No one is left out. They all take on the disciplines of fasting and prayer. Their lives are bound together because God has made them and called them together. They are marked out in the world as His own people, the bearers of his heritage among the nations.
We too belong together, and at least a few of the sins we number today have been committed against each other. The outcomes of our lives also alike lie in God’s hands. And so we confess together, so that we might rise up renewed and forgiven. We remind ourselves together of the fragility of life, so together we use our time with greater purpose and gratitude. There are ashes for all this day, and absolution freely offered for all who turn to God. With His help, for each of us, this can be a new day of grace.