Ash Wednesday is the day that marks the first day of Lent, a forty day period of fasting and prayer. It commemorates the forty-day sojourn of Christ in the desert. While there, he 'wrestled with the Devil'. This struggle is reminiscent of the ancient struggle between Mot and Ba'al and in fact, the entire Christian calendar is predicated upon that of ancient mystery religions.
In Roman Catholic churches, Ash Wednesday was a day on which the devout came to church to be told: 'Thou are dust and to dust shalt thou return'. After this statement, a cross would be drawn on the worshipper's forehead with a mixture of sacred oil and ashes.
The purpose of this actually is to remind the believer that this life is transient at best and that one must focus on the life of the spirit rather than the pleasures (and pains) of the flesh.
In some pagan or nature religions, the idea of 'Dust to dust' represents the ultimate reunion of the body with the Earth Goddess. There is nothing in Christianity to argue against this philosophy or premise. Many Christians, especially Celtic Christians combine respect and love of the Earth with a love of Christ.
In any case, although Ash Wednesday is a sombre day and indeed the entire period of Lent emphasises prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the purpose is not to drive people to despair but in fact to prepare them for the great joy of Easter, when life is reborn and Christ triumphs over Death.
The entire seasonal ritual has its roots in ancient mystery religions like that of Sumer, Babylon and Egypt.
When the goddess Inanna goes down to the entrance to the Underworld, she bids her faithful servitor (and representative) to remember her and to make certain that the gods remember her while she is absent from the earth.
The journey of the God or Goddess to the Underworld is not a 'one-way trip'. It is an ordeal, but one that will end with victory over Death.
The mourning rituals of the ancients as well as contemporary Lenten observations actually are intended to support the energy of life and are not to be perceived as an obsession with death. Like many rites of preparation, the season is supposed to be one of self-assessment and improvement. Like the Islamic month of Ramadhan, Lent is a season for charity and kindness, for prayer and contemplation.
Ancient mourning rituals were a form of sympathetic magic. The actions of the mourners were intended to bring forth a renewal of life. In the ancient tale of Ba'al's death:
Straightway does Kindly El the Compassionate
Come down from his throne
To sit upon his footstool.
He comes down from his footstool
To sit on the ground.
He pours the dust of mourning upon his head,
In the ashes he prostrates himself,
Covers himself with dust.
He paints his forehead with the ashes of mourning,
And covers his loins with sackcloth.
With a stone blade, his skin he cuts,
With a razor of flint does he slice his flesh,
Cutting his chin and his cheeks.
With a reed he rakes his upper arms,
The nose of his heart (his chest) like a garden he plows,
Like a valley he furrows his body.
He lifts his voice to cry: 'Ba'al is dead!'
The agricultural imagery here is deliberate. El ploughs his flesh and the blood wells forth from the furrows like water fertilising a field. In fact, when El has a dream of Ba'al's rebirth: 'the heavens rain oil upon the earth, the wadis run with honey'.
The 'prophets' of the ancient Hebrews railed against these ancient mourning practices but they never were able to stop them. In fact, the act of mourning is a very natural part of the cycle of life. In the same way that we 'water the earth' with our tears, we open our spirits to the other realm when we perform any of these ancient rituals.
It is interesting to reflect upon the image of El plowing the 'nose of his heart' and the old shamanic belief that individuals who were destined to become powerful shamans had their chests opened and their hearts removed, either to be washed and then replaced, or to be replaced entirely by a heart made of crystal or some other precious substance. Many shamans have related experiences of this nature. According to some old tales, the Prophet Muhammad himself had a classical shamanic experience whereby his heart was washed by angels.
In reflecting upon acts of devotion such as those of Ash Wednesday, I realised that faith never can be an intellectual exercise. Intellectual arguments can support faith but they cannot substitute for it. This is something that atheists fail to comprehend. They use 'science' supposedly as a measure for determining the validity of religion without realising that this would be tantamount to an attempt to use a needle and thread to make a gown from clouds. One has no bearing on the other.
What is missing in the life of an atheist is the transcendental experience of the Divine. The closest way to describe this in words is to declare it to be an experience of Love, but it is not like any human experience of love involving another individual.
'In Islam there are many references to a situation wherein an individual prays to Allah to 'expand his breast'. In English, it is similarly said that a person 'opens his heart' to an idea or even emotional response. In the Surah al Sharh', the first verse is a question by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad: 'Have We not expanded your breast?' A very popular Du'a taken from Surah Taha and known as the prayer of Prophet Musa likewise refers to this phenomenon: 'Rabbi Ishrah li Sadri wayassir li amri, wahlul 'uqdatan min lisani, yafqahu Qawli.' In English, 'My Lord, expand my breast, make my task easy, undo the knot in my tongue that my speech will be clear.'
The ultimate religious experience is that 'expansion of the breast' or heart. What occurs can be categorised either as Love or as Ecstacy, but in all truth, it cannot be defined by any words. It is the sudden realisation that one is not alone in this life. It is akin to the moment when the sun breaks through heavy clouds, casting a pure ray of light upon the earth. It seldom lasts, but it is enough to make us realise that this is why we insist that there is a God, whoever or whatever that God may be...
The purpose of the cross drawn in ash on the forehead on Ash Wednesday is to remind human beings of the fact that this is not the sum total of our existence. There is more to any human being than a frail and frustrating container of flesh and even more than a questioning mind. When we experience that 'opening of our hearts', we know for a moment at least that we are connected to something far greater than we even can imagine. It is not so much that the Divine exists, but that we are connected to this Divine Entity through Love.