The Dust of Adam
David Mills on the Rite of Ash Wednesday
“When you fast,” Jesus says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly, I say unto you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; that you appear not to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place.”
So much, you might think, for the traditional imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, as practiced by many Western Christians since the early Middle Ages. In liturgical churches, the priest or pastor marks a small cross on your forehead with ashes, traditionally made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. As he does so, he tells you that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
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David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.
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