This article is part of a series titled “Keeping Time With God: The Christian Year.”
March 2, 2022, ASH WEDNESDAY: The first day of Lent, the Church’s period of preparation for Easter. Lent continues through April 14.
“Ring around the rosies, a pocket full of posies!” Do you remember these words from a favorite old nursery rhyme? For centuries now, boys and girls at play on both sides of the Atlantic have sung them, while holding hands and marching in a circle. “Ashes! Ashes!” someone suddenly cries, ‘We all fall down!” That’s exactly what everybody does. Giggling and tumbling over each other, the children drop to the floor; then, still gripping each others’ hands, they scramble to their feet to begin the same sequence again. “Ring around the rosies, a pocket full of posies!”
No one knows for sure the source of this antique bit of doggerel. But some historians suggest that it comes from medieval Europe, the land of our ancestors, where during the 14th through the 17th centuries, forty to sixty percent of the population was wiped out by the horrors of the Bubonic Plague, or as it is also called, the Black Death. Everywhere the Grim Reaper cut down his writhing victims. In the great cities, millions of bloody, shrouded corpses were carried out to the rickety death carts which rattled over the cobblestone streets, as their drivers cried, “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” So the stench of suffering, death, and corruption seemed to permeate the atmosphere and even drifted into Asia. Over two continents, the tolling church bells sounded the death knell that brought terror to both the palaces of the rich and the hovels of the poor.
Every part of the old nursery rhyme is supposed to point to some aspect of the awful Plague. “Ring around the rosies” portrays the bloody circular sores that broke out on the victims’ groin and armpits. “A pocket full of posies” refers to the small satchels of dried flowers that many wore in a futile effort to ward off the disease. “Ashes! Ashes!” brings to mind the stench of burning corpses as they were reduced to crumbling ashes. “We all fall down!” describes the intensity of universal suffering and despair.
“Ashes! Ashes! we all fall down!” In our journey through the Christian Year, the Church’s ancient liturgical calendar, we have now arrived at a time for ashes, not indeed to mourn the devastation of a plague, but seriously to reflect upon our mortality, penitently to confess our trespasses, and earnestly to pray for spiritual revival and renewal. This Is Lent, Christianity’s traditional forty-day period (Sundays are not counted) for both personal and corporate preparation for Easter, the great celebration of Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead.
Lent—the word comes from Old Saxon and means “spring”—begins on Ash Wednesday, which, as its name implies, uses ashes as a symbol of human frailty and mortality. “The symbolism of ashes is ancient,” explains author Martha Zimmerman, who also insists that we must understand this symbolism to grasp its relevance to historic Lenten observance. “What do ashes signify in Scripture? In Genesis 18:27, Abraham reminds us, ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes’ (NIV). Job repeats the same understanding when he says, ‘I am reduced to dust and ashes’ (Job 30:19 NIV). Ashes are a symbol of humility and a visual reminder of the vast difference between creatures and their Creator.”
“Ashes were also used as a sign of sorrow and genuine regret. God’s message to the people of Nineveh— delivered by Jonah—confronted their disobedience. The consequence was to be total destruction of the city. When the king heard the news, he covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes (Jonah 3:6 NASB) as a sign of penitence.” In a similar time of great urgency, the prophet Daniel tells us, “And I set my face unto the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). So the well-known symbol of crumbled ashes has been used for many centuries, and it is still used in the Church’s historic burial service, when a clergyman commits the body of the Christian dead to the grave, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
So also on Ash Wednesday in liturgical churches, congregations gather for divine service in which there is strong emphasis on human frailty and failure and the corresponding need for penitence, discipline, and renewal. Then the pastor invites his congregation to approach the altar. There he dips his thumb into a bowl of crumbled ashes, and on the forehead of each parishioner he makes a cross of ashes, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The people leave the church challenged to participate humbly and faithfully in a 40- day pilgrimage to shore up their spiritual foundations.
Granted, few if any of us will be marked with a cross of ashes this Ash Wednesday, for that is not emphasized in our movement’s 19th-century tradition. But what the cross of ashes represents is a clearcut call to renewed Christian discipleship for us, as well as a forceful reminder of the brevity of life here and the certainty of life hereafter. It also comes with God’s binding pledge that if we shall draw near to Him, He will most assuredly draw near to us. Thus we hear the call of Ash Wednesday, which is, of course, the call of the whole season of Lent.
In a sense, Lent is like a time built into the Christian Year for a spring revival, a tradition with which we are certainly familiar. Like any other revival, what we get out of Lent will be measured by what we put into it. Even if the ashes on our foreheads are invisible, if we have sincerely traced them there, let them be a reminder to us that the weeks immediately before we commemorate Christ’s death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Day is a most fitting time to flee to Him for His Spirit’s refreshing streams of grace and renewal.
In conclusion, here is a summary of what must be done to keep a holy Lent: (1) Approach your Heavenly Father with deep humility and steadfast purpose to clear any cloudy areas in your relationship with Him. (2) Search your own heart carefully to see if all is right with others, and if you are troubled about anything, set the matter straight. You may find it helpful to consult a trusted soulmate who is not afraid to ask you the old Methodist class meeting question, “Brother, Sister, how does your soul prosper?” (3) Confess your failings to God and to anyone to whom you owe an apology. Remember Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” (4) Devote special times to prayer and Bible study, accepting the usual Lenten disciplines, such as fasting, special times of prayer, ministering to the poor and neglected, and reading helpful spiritual materials. (5) Trust in the mercies of a merciful God who has promised that if we seek Him we shall find Him.
Yes, a holy Lent will lead us to a holy Easter! “Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!”
(The next installment will focus on Holy Week and Easter.)
Republished from the God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.