Two of the most frequently asked questions about Ash Wednesday and Lent are
1) Why do we put ashes on our foreheads? and
2) Why do we give up things for Lent?
More about #2 next week, but a short answer to #1 is that we put ashes on our foreheads because ashes are a sign of mortality and penitence.
Ash Wednesday, it is said, is a kind of Christian Yom Kippur - and as Rabbi Alexis Roberts says of that day,
"Many say we're practicing to be dead: looking over our values, accomplishments, and failures as though it was all over and now we have to make an accounting."
"Thinking about our mortality" is NOT the same thing as "being morbid," although those two words share the same root. Morbidity has to do with thinking about our unhealthy state; mortality has to do with thinking about the fact that we are mortal. And the point of thinking about our mortality is to maximize the time we have on earth: to seize the day; to embrace and do all the good we can.
#2: Why do we give up things for Lent?
So -- as we hear each year during the Ash Wednesday service -- we are encouraged, during Lent, to take seriously the ancient spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The point of prayer, fasting from certain foods and alcohol, and giving alms (giving away more money) is not to make ourselves suffer, it is to learn something about ourselves. To learn what has a hold on us.
God is a God of freedom, and following God and God's commandments (such as praying, fasting, and giving away money) does not restrict our freedom, it can lead to true freedom and deeper joy.
In other words, the intention of spiritual practices like contemplation, fasting from certain foods and alcohol, and almsgiving, is meant to help us explore the mystery of our hearts, and by so doing, transform our lives.
Until next week...