I usually write about Lent, and probably will this year, too, because I think lots of people who don’t observe it find it pretty mystifying, but I don’t think I’ve ever written about the ashes.
Mainline Protestant churches (and I guess all evangelicals can get offended by the term if they care to, but it is the normal term we use, sort of like Inuits calling themselves “people” as though no one else were) often have the imposition of ashes in the evening, so that we only have to go to choir practice with smudged faces. High church types like Episcopalians, and usually Catholics as well, do the imposition of ashes in the morning so their members go around with dirty faces all day, providing an opportunity to witness to kindly people who let them know that they’ve got schmutz on their faces.
Here’s how it’s done: the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are gathered up and burnt, creating some ashes. There’s a service and/or some confession, however your particular church goes about it, and then the pastor or priest dips his thumb into the ashes and makes a cross on the forehead of all the penitents (the people who’ve confessed their sins).
The object is to remind us that we’re sinners, in case it has slipped our minds, and get us ready for Lent, the season of penitence that takes place between Mardi Gras and Easter.
Those of you who are still parading and partying and flashing your bosoms (or, if you are men, your pretend bosoms) for Mardi Gras must wrap it up pretty quickly here.