“[Lent] was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”-BCP
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as a “notorious” sinner. If anything, I pride myself on keeping my sins cloaked in a discreet cloud of humility, penetrable only by those close enough to me that they see through my politeness. Yet every year I look forward to Ash Wednesday, the day that I can literally wear the awareness of my sinfulness on my forehead. I love to go to the earlier service so that I can be reminded all day long of my need to repent, and by the time the dark smudge has worn off of my forehead it is time for the evening service, where I can be reminded all over again.
Ash Wednesday has its roots in the penance of individuals who had committed what the Book of Common Prayer calls “notorious sins.” The imposition of ashes can be dated back to the 9th century, but the Order of Penitents, as it was called, dates at least to the 4th. This Order was specifically for individuals who were already baptized but then committed grave enough sins that, when they confessed them to their bishop, they were assigned acts of penance. These included wearing garments that set them apart from other Church members and being sprinkled with ashes when they were admitted into the order. This sign of penance was then adopted for all church members on the day before Lent as a sign that all were sinners and needed to repent before celebrating Christ’s return at Easter.
Each year at Resurrection we enter into the great Lenten season with the Ash Wednesday service as a means to remind ourselves that we all belong in the Order of Penitents. But even as the priest is imposing ashes on our foreheads and praying “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return: repent and believe the Gospel,” he is making the sign of the cross on our forehead- the same sign that he makes on the forehead of the newly baptized on Easter Sunday as they are declared “marked as Christ’s own forever.” Penitence is ultimately about being brought back in to communion with Christ and with his Church, and thus even in the midst of the sober reality of our notorious sinfulness we as Christians can look forward with hope to the all embracing joy of Christ’s love at Easter.