Cultural Resources


(The Beginning of the Lenten Season)


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator

Lection – Joel 2:12-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

I. The History Section

Ash Wednesday is the first event of the Lenten season marking the formal beginning of a period of repentance and abstinence. In some traditions, in a special worship service, palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and the resulting ashes are placed on the foreheads of faithful worshippers in the Sign of the Cross to symbolize their desire to repent for their sins. As a reminder of human frailty and ultimate mortality, the ashen crosses emblazoned upon their foreheads serve as the Christian call to walk in the steps of Jesus in one’s life until death.

For those African American Christians who uphold this traditional ritual practice of Ash Wednesday (most notably members of the Roman Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches), wearing of the cross reflects the significance of this first day of Lent as an occasion to humbly repent and turn towards God with all of their heart, thus giving oneself fully to God.

As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a moveable feast within the Western Christian calendar. Ash Wednesday has a variable date each year since it is dependent upon the date of Easter and occurs forty-six days before Easter (forty days not counting Sundays, since Sunday worship is deemed a weekly reminder of the Resurrection). In the liturgical practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with Holy Water and sacred oils in order to serve as a fixative. This blend is used by the minister who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his or her own forehead and then on those of congregants. The minister recites words drawn from the biblical narrative: "Remember…that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"(Genesis 3:19).

At worship services on this day, the priest, minister or, in some cases, an officiating layperson, marks the forehead of each faithful participant with black ashes which the worshipper traditionally retains until it wears off on its own. The ashes used in the service of worship or Mass are sacramentals, not a sacrament. Within the Roman Catholic Church, ashes are also considered sacramentals since they may be given to any Christian.  This is as opposed to sacraments, which are generally reserved for identified members of the Catholic Church. Ashes are blessed according to various rites proper to each liturgical tradition among each Christian denomination but all who profess the Christian faith and are baptized may receive ashes.

On a practical note, some incorrectly suggest that “[t]he ashes may be mixed with a small amount of water for the Imposition of Ashes.” Do not do this. The mixture may form a caustic substance that will irritate or even burn the skin. Instead, use dry ashes (ground to a fine powder) or mix the ashes with a little olive oil or some other vegetable oil. Similarly, do not remove the ashes by trying to wash them off! Instead, rub them off with a towel (not moistened with water) followed by, as the text from Matthew's Gospel suggests, some olive oil or other vegetable oil to help remove the residue.

Another central facet of Ash Wednesday that almost goes ignored is the importance of fasting as a sign of repentance. In the Roman Catholic Church of my childhood, strict all-day fasting or abstinence from all meat except fish as a means of demonstrating one’s contrition and contemplation of personal transgressions was mainly observed on Ash Wednesday as well as all Fridays in Lent leading to Good Friday. Some Roman Catholics will go beyond the minimum obligations demanded by the Church and undertake a complete fast. Some Roman Catholics continue fasting during the whole of Lent, as was the Church's traditional requirement, concluding only after the celebration of the Easter Vigil. Similarly, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer also designates Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting. While the practices associated with Ash Wednesday are deemed optional in various other Christian denominations, the main focus they share addresses the matter of repentance.

II. Songs that Speak to the Moment

Songs are tremendously helpful in setting the mood for Ash Wednesday services. The songs should be appropriate but need not be dull or difficult for the congregation to sing. Three songs that are common for Ash Wednesday include “A Clean Heart,” which is the ultimate aim for this moment and all moments of the Christian journey. This song is also quite soothing but not somber. Two other favorites and much older songs are “An Evening Prayer,” and “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” “An Evening Prayer,” while long sung in the culture, is likely known by a more familiar title, “If I Have Wounded Any Soul Today.” This song has been recorded by many including Elvis Presley. While it may have fallen out of common use in the twenty-first century, we would do well to revive its timeless message for today. “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” perhaps the best known of the three songs among African American worshippers, is also a classic selection that builds a mood of penitence and humility as we acknowledge our clear need for God at all times but especially during moments of difficulty.

A Clean Heart
A clean heart (3x),
so I can serve, clean.

I'm not asking for the riches of the land,
I'm not asking for men to know my name;
but just give me a clean heart,
so I can serve, so I can serve, clean.

A clean heart, make me pure inside.
A clean heart, so I can have eternal life.

Vamp 2
A clean heart.1

An Evening Prayer
If I have wounded any soul today
If I have caused one foot to go astray
If I have walked in my own willful way
Dear Lord, forgive!

If I have uttered idle words or vain
If I have turned aside from want or pain
Lest I myself shall suffer thro' the strain
Dear Lord, forgive!

If I have been perverse or hard or cold
If I have longed for shelter in Thy fold
When Thou hast given me some fort to hold
Dear Lord, forgive!

Forgive the sins I have confessed to Thee
Forgive the secret sins I do not see
O guide me, love me, and my keeper be
Dear Lord, forgive! Amen.2

Come, Ye Disconsolate
Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love—come ever knowing
Earth has no sow but heav’n can remove.3

III. Cultural Response to Significant Aspects of the Text

(A) Historical Lesson

As the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday immediately follows the last day of the Carnival season. There are various traditional Pre-Lenten festivals prevalent throughout various New World African societies; they precede Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. Typically viewed as the last opportunity for excess before the start of Lent, Carnival ends with the season of fasting associated with Ash Wednesday. 

Although the term “Carnival” has been subject to many etymological debates, it is believed to be rooted in the Latin phrase carne vale—“a farewell to the flesh”—which is a connotation widely embraced by several New World African cultural traditions that encourage individuals to let go of your everyday mundane self by embracing the hedonistic attitude of the festival season in ways large and small. Whereas the most renowned pre-Lenten celebrations in the world are Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil  there are countless celebrations in the Western Hemisphere. Across the Gulf Coast area of the United States, Carnival celebrations are traditionally referred to as Mardi Gras (literally translated from French as "Fat Tuesday"). Customarily originated in the one-time French colonial port cities of Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Biloxi, Mississippi with street parades and masquerade balls, similar celebrations now occur in many other major U.S. cities such as St. Louis, Missouri; Pensacola, Florida; San Diego, California; Austin, Texas; and Orlando, Florida, among others.

Carnival is widely celebrated throughout most of the Caribbean and Latin America. The largest and most imitated celebration is held in Trinidad and Tobago while Haiti, Dominican Republic, Antigua, Aruba, the Cayman Islands, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the Virgin Islands are also known for extensive Carnival seasons and substantial celebrations. On the Dutch Antilles islands of Aruba, Curaçao, St. Maarten, and Bonaire, among others, Carnival is considered a culturally significant event. Festivities include "jump-up" parades with beautifully colored costumes, motorized floats, and live musical bands as well as beauty contests and other competitions. Carnival on these islands also includes a middle-of-the-night juvé parade that ends at sunrise with the burning of a straw Rei Momo (loosely translated to be “King Fool”) as a means of cleansing the island of sinfulness and bad luck.

Notably, Cuba had celebrated Carnival annually since the 18th century with costumes, dances and pageantry representing the robust multicultural and multiethnic diversity of the island. Following the Communist Revolution led by Fidel Castro, however, celebration of Carnival throughout Cuba has been in overall decline since 1960. Although historically overshadowed by Brazil, its larger neighbor to the north, Uruguay’s Carnival season is the world’s longest in duration, with more than 80 days of celebration from January through mid March with the celebrations in Montevideo, the nation’s capital, being the largest and most resplendent. Much like the other pre-Lenten festival, Uruguayan Carnival is a syncretic tradition that merges the European parade style with musical and aesthetic elements drawn from the African cultures of the enslaved Bantu and Angolan peoples imported to the region during the colonial era.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival is a festive season that lasts over a month and culminates in large celebrations in the Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, on the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday. Tobago's celebrations also culminate on Monday and Tuesday but on a much smaller scale in its capital, Scarborough. Carnival is a festive time of costumes, dance, competitions, rum, and partying to soca and calypso music, this latter point is especially emphasized by the annual Carnival steel pan competition known as the National Panorama competition. It is important to note that since Carnival's religious element was largely suppressed, the events remained intact, although frowned upon by the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

Using the Trinidadian and Tobagan Carnivals as a chief example, the pre-Lenten festivals have a dynamic flow to them that gradually and logically progress towards their inevitable conclusion on Ash Wednesday. On the Sunday night before Ash Wednesday, "Dimanche Gras" takes place wherein the Calypso Monarch is chosen or crowned. Each band has to parade through the streets in huge, complex, beautiful costumes for the next two days and submit a king and queen from which an overall winner is chosen. The crowing of the King and Queen of the bands is a major feature of the Sunday festivities. At dawn on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, “Dirty Mas,” or “J'ouvert,” which means “opening of the day,” takes place. During this particular event, the revelers dress in old clothes and cover themselves in mud, oil paint, and body paint. A common sight to be witnessed at this time is "Jab-jabs," a devilish character who is depicted as being blue, black, or red in color. To heighten the sinister nature of Jab-jabs, the revelers display the figure replete with pitchforks, pointed horns, and tails. Also, based on their representation of current political issues and social events, a king and queen of the J'ouvert are selected. Carnival Monday involves a more relaxed parade of the mass bands, in which celebrants wear only parts of their costumes as an appreciation of casual fun rather than competitive feuds.

As the last day before Ash Wednesday, Carnival Tuesday is when the main events of the carnival transpire. On this particular day, participants wear full costumes with complete make up and adornments. Each band has their costume and presentation based on a  theme. There is a huge street parade consisting of thousands of revelers with an eventual crowning of the best band. This parading and partying continues through Tuesday night and well into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. While it is not an official holiday, Ash Wednesday is marked by most by visiting the beaches that abound in both Trinidad and Tobago. These massive beach parties are considered a cooling down period to relax after the previous five days of frantic partying, bombastic parades, and competitions. The Ash Wednesday beach parties are especially notable because they are family-friendly affairs. Due to its popularity, Trinidadian Carnival has been widely imitated by many West Indian cultures and has even been noted as a major influence upon such renowned events as the Caribana festival in Toronto, Canada and Carnival in Miami, Florida.

IV. Stories and Illustrations

As the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. According to the Bible, ashes were used in antiquity in order to express mourning. Furthermore, dusting oneself with ashes was the expression of the penitent’s sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. In Ezekiel 9, there is also mention of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants who mourned the sins of the people. Consequently, all those found walking without the mark are invariably destroyed. Using New Testament passages such as Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13 as a basis, the time frame marks the start of a forty-day period analogous to the separation of Jesus in the desert to fast and pray during which he was tempted by the devil.

V.  A Prayer on Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you
forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray that we may keep a true fast. Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil. Help us to honor you by our self-denial and make this season holy. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and one another: call forth our penitence and acts of love, and strengthen us to face our mortality, so that we may look with confidence for your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.4

VI. Recommended Books

  1. Gomes, Peter. The Scandalous Gospel of  Jesus. New York, NY: Harper One, 1998.
  2. Coakley, John and Andrea Sterk. Readings in World Christian History. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005.
  3. Methuen, Charlotte. If You Love Something, Let It Go...: Reflections for Ash Wednesday to Pentecost. Werrington, UK: Peterborough Methodist Publishing House, 2004.


1. “A Clean Heart.” By Margaret Douroux
2. “An Evening Prayer.” By C.M. Battersby
3. “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” By Thomas Moore. African American Heritage Hymnal. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2001. #421
4. Prayer from Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons. Online location: accessed  29 October 2009



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