A- A A+

Ash Wednesday did not begin in 1983

Kylie Crabbe |  27 February 2007

Ash Wednesday did not begin in 1983When I was a little kid, I thought Ash Wednesday was synonymous with bushfires. There was a kind of hushed tone reserved for the name; a natural disaster that seemed to me to have scared the pants off fire-fighters, homeowners and volunteers alike in the town I grew up in. I was too young, but I knew that there were horrible stories behind the experiences of those like my dad, who went to help, and there was always an edge to the way mum described the early end to my sister’s school camp.

So I remember it was a big surprise when I learned that Ash Wednesday was first of all a date in the Christian calendar and not, in fact, a day that began in 1983. A surprise, followed by a slightly sickening revelation about the irony of the name. About a thousand years before these bushfires Christians were already starting the season of Lent with ashes.

Then, as now, to begin this forty day season of preparation for Easter, ashes are made by burning the palm fronds left over from the Palm Sunday celebrations of the year before. On the last Sunday of Lent, on which Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion is remembered, foreheads are marked with a cross. Wearing ash became a symbol of repentance and of public sorrow.

The idea of Ash Wednesday meaning bushfires gave me a picture of ashes that were heavy and ubiquitous; the fallout of heartbreak. But while the liturgical stocks of ash may seem more contained, I now see we should be wary of keeping such things neat. Ash Wednesday, as the first day of Lent, ensures that the road to Easter starts with the hard, gritty edge of faith, and of life. It is the church’s reminder that Easter renewal is sought from within the mess of everyday life. Whether we mark our foreheads, or just give our fears, disappointments and sufferings a good long stare, we start by acknowledging not just our own failings, but the brokenness of the world – the symbols of celebration are reduced to ashes.

And I’m tipping we’ll all remember the feeling of ashes this bushfire season. It is not hard to picture the sky as though airbrushed grey, clogged by a haze the sun fought against, while our eyes stung and our car ducos turned gritty. And that’s just in metropolitan Melbourne. We who were there can recall the surreal images of flames and bursts of orange, and the people who appeared haggard and worried on our TV sets each night – their lives redirected into the daily business of readying themselves and their properties, should wind and heat conspire to bring fire their way.

Ash Wednesday did not begin in 1983Perhaps though, after lifetimes of bushfire news, such situations, and the recovery required are overly familiar to us. We in Australia are well versed in the stories of our extraordinary flora, which thrive when struck by fire. We will be unsurprised to learn that it takes a mere few days for a eucalypt to send out its supple green shoots.

In less time than it takes the church to make its annual pilgrimage from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, the Australian landscape will have moved from fire and ash to extravagant blooms. But despite the bush’s resilience, it is too tempting to make something reduced to ashes an easy symbol – whether eucalypt or palm frond.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy acknowledges that people and lives are more complicated than bush, and our renewal mightn’t follow a calendar so neatly. And yet, every year, the church takes the palms, and burns them. And the people file forward, and own up to what seems inadequate or painful, face to face on foreheads, because at the same time the ritual offers a reminder that this ash is not the final word. If what we have endured is neither neat, nor in line with the calendar, then perhaps the beauty of the church’s proclamation becomes even clearer.

Lent happens every year, and it is always followed by the celebration of renewal at Easter. In any given year, when for whatever reasons people find themselves unable to believe it, they are still invited forward, to wear the ash, name the brokenness, and be carried by the millennia of the faith of others, until they find that the renewal has become their own.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Beautiful writing! What's a duco?

Cindy Weber 22 February 2007

Duco - what makes it possible to see oneself reflected in the paint on the car, that is, a shiny sprayon paint finish.

Lesley de Voil 23 February 2007

good article

annonomus 04 March 2007

I think that you should explain more what happened on Ash Wedesday so your info can be used for projects and stuff!
All in all i think it was a bit confusing but i'm only 11. To someone older i hope to them is OK!
i'm doing a project on Ash Wednesday so at first i thought it was interesting but it turned out it was more a fictional piece with littel info but quit intertaining. That is my oppinion!

Nicole 03 June 2007

I think this website is kind of cool but boring....jk! Well bye

Melissa Curry 30 January 2008

Similar articles

'Hate the sin, love the sinner' more sentimental than moral?

Andrew Hamilton | 27 February 2007Hate the sin, love the sinner, more sentimental than moralIt sounds nice. Until we begin to name names. Adolf Hitler, Jozef Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama Bin Laden. These are monsters. To suggest that God loves them is to sentimentalise God, and to remove any firm basis for morality.

Capitalism's ingenious immunity to the guilty conscience

Scott Stephens | 27 February 2007Capitalism's ingenious immunity to the guilty conscienceEvery attempt to curb capitalism's voracious appetite, to ‘humanize’ its world-wide dominion, to place the world economy back in the service of the greater good, and thus temper its lust for unregulated growth, has not only failed, but has been assimilated.

All are one before the law

Frank Brennan | 27 February 2007All are one before the lawThe last state authorised execution in Australia—that of Ronald Ryan—occurred 40 years ago last week. 12 year old Frank Brennan felt it was wrong. His adolescent moral sensibilities found resonance in public debate, law reform and policy change.

What's missing in Rudd-Abbott debate on faith in politics

Andrew Hamilton | 27 February 2007Faith and politics debate begs deeper questionsQuestions of why Christianity has a personal and social morality of a particular shape demand a more complex account of Christian faith than that provided in Mr Rudd’s emphasis on Jesus’ practice or in Mr Abbott’s emphasis on moral law.

Which ideas belong in the public sphere?

Peter Douglas | 27 February 2007How to deal with ideas inconsistent with our ownThe post-Enlightenment commitment to the rational testing of claims is important if we are avoid the excesses of fundamentalism. But it could be time to accept that the range of acceptable ideas has been too narrow.