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From palms to ashes, the tradition of Ash Wednesday
ash wednesday

By Pastor Devin Strong, Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church.

Christian tradition tells us that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday are created from the burned palm branches used on the previous Palm Sunday to commemorate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem amid an exuberant crowd cheering, “Hail Son of David! Hail King of kings!” In just five days, that same crowd would be fiercely shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Palm branches turned to ashes are a not-so-subtle reminder of our fair-weather faith, and our fickleness as humans. Remembering these unsettling, backto- back events explains why Ash Wednesday is considered the most penitential service of the Christian year, and why it carries the stark refrain: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday ushers in the 40 days of Lent that lead us to the celebration of Easter. (The count excludes Sundays because, in the Christian tradition, every Sunday is considered a “little Easter.”) The Lenten season is intended to be a contemplative journey of penitence and reflection with Biblical tie-ins to the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness before being led into the Promised Land, as well as the 40 days and nights Jesus endured in the wilderness after his baptism, while being repeatedly tempted by the Devil. Historically, the 40 days were less focused on guilt, and more focused on the preparation of the baptisms frequently performed on Easter Sunday. Candidates spent 40 days in classes, learning about the Christian life, which encourages us to reflect on Lent as not only a sad, dour time of repentance, but as a time of learning and growth as well.

It’s also important for us to understand the difference between regret and repentance. Regret is saying, “I feel bad, sad or, even shameful, about something I’ve done.” Repentance, however, is derived from the Hebrew word metanoia and means to turn completely around and go in a different direction. The good news here is that repentance carries far more hope than feeling stuck in regret, because it means that – with God’s help — we can absolutely turn ourselves around and make a genuine difference in our lives!

For further reflection, what if, rather than thinking about Lent only in terms of personal sins, we think of it in terms of collective sins?

Considering that most of the Bible was written to communities of faith, what might today’s faith communities need to repent? What do we need to be about in order to reach out as more effective witnesses to the


Of course, an even greater challenge would be to ask ourselves what do we need to repent as a country? Corporate or group, repentance might be a tall order to consider, but doing so could surely benefit us all.

During Lent, we’re offered the chance to acknowledge our utter brokenness and our need for God, both personally and as a larger body of believers. We were created to need God, just like we need air — and we’re simply not complete without what we need!

Lent is not just about contemplating what horrible, sinful people we are; it’s a loving, sacred reminder of our need for God.

Palms turned to ashes remind us that, yes, we’re fickle human beings and we make grave mistakes.

And when those ashes are drawn as a sign of the cross on our foreheads, they’re also the certain reminder that because of Jesus’s love and forgiveness, we’ve just embarked on a 40-day journey toward hope!

Jesus loves you and so do I!

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