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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The "What's That Schmutz On Your Forehead" Story

It was an ordinary day.  Ash Wednesday to be exact; that is if you are Christian.  Today marks the beginning of Lent which is a period of 40 days that lasts through Holy Saturday - the day before Easter Sunday.  The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "lencten," or spring.  The  40 days (minus Sundays) symbolize the time Jesus spent in the wilderness.  It is supposed to be a time for reflection, fasting and repentance.  It is also supposed to be a unique time in the Christian calendar for each person to reflect on their life and relationship with God, as well as to join together as a community in offering worship and service to God.  
Its also the time when many churches and denominations offer ashes to be placed on the forehead of a worshiper to represent two main items in the Old Testament: death and repentance.  Ashes are equivalent to dust, and human flesh is composed of dust or clay, and when a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.  I can remember when I had ashes applied to my head as a young man.  When I walked out of the church I could swear every person I walked past looked at me.  It's as if I had a big blob of dirt on my head and I expected someone to ask if I knew it was there.  I am a member of an Episcopal congregation so you can see that it is not only Catholics who apply ashes to the head.  We would form a line and as you reached the minister and he would take his thumb and mark the cross on the forehead with the ashes.  There really is no mention of Ash Wednesday or the placing of ashes on the forehead in the Bible.  The tradition of ashes on the forehead is a sign of penitence that predates Jesus.  It was in the 10th century that the monk Aelfric tied the practice to the period before Easter stating, "Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during Lenten fast."  By the 11th century the practice was widespread throughout the church until Martin Luther threw out the practice in the 16th century since it wasn't biblically based.  There really is no Lent in the Bible, either, though many Christians see it as an imitation of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and battling with Satan in the desert.  So, when I did get ashes on my forehead (wasn't more than a time or two) I wasn't sure when it was OK to wash them off.  
Palm fronds hanging in my house.  I believe
I will be blessed with good luck if I save them.
Wasn't sure if I was supposed to keep them on my forehead until Easter.  Finally mom yelled at me to wash my head so I wouldn't get sick from the stuff.  There really is no required time that you need to keep the ashes on your head and I suspect that many wipe them off before they go to work or school directly after the service.  I did enjoy the ashes on the forehead thing, but my favorite is Palm Sunday when the minister, or someone assigned to help him, would hand out palm fronds after the service.  Well, for those who will have ashes on their foreheads today, I promise I will look at you with reverence and the knowledge that you have been to church on this first day of Lent.  And, I won't think you don't know that you're walking around with schmutz all over your forehead.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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