Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Ring Around the Rosie

Ring around the rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down! 

You probably at some time or another have heard that popular nursery rhyme. For at least 150 years, children have been singing “Ring around the Rosie” or a variant of it. What you may not know is the great debate which rages about its meaning.

The rhyme was first published in print in the year 1881. Even then, though, people weren’t exactly sure what it meant. By the mid twentieth century, some scholars proposed that it was a reference to the bubonic plague which swept through Europe in the Middle Ages and in England specifically in the late 1600’s.

The bubonic plague presents with pink sores around one’s mouth. Posies were sometimes used as a folk remedy. Ashes were the result of cremating the dead bodies.

No one, however, can say for sure what the strange words of the nursery rhyme actually mean – especially the odd inclusion of the word “ashes.”

Today is Ash Wednesday. For centuries Christians have received ashes on their foreheads in the sign of a cross. Ashes remind us from where we came and what we will be: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

In Biblical times, ashes were a sign of sorrow and repentance. People would sit in sack cloth and ashes as they mourned or repented. Though we don’t know why ashes were included in “Ring around the Rosie,” we can say for sure why ashes are used on Ash Wednesday.

Because we all fall down.

Every day we sin. We fail. We fall – in school, at our jobs, in our marriages. We are dirty, lousy sinners who deserve to die. We are dirty, lousy sinners who deserve to burn in the flames of hell.

That is what Ash Wednesday is all about. As we begin the season of Lent, as we begin our journey following Jesus on his road to the cross, we do so mourning the fact that it is our fault. Those are our sins he bears. That is our punishment.

Yet we do so remembering that he bore our punishment willingly. Lent begins with ashes on Ash Wednesday and ends at the cross on Good Friday. On that cross Jesus willingly suffered the pain of hell we deserve for all the times we fall down. At the cross we see our Savior’s forgiving love.

On Ash Wednesday, we sorrowfully sit in sack cloth and ashes. We confess our failings and fallings to God. But then we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads – the sign of forgiveness. All our failings and fallings are forever forgiven because of what Jesus did on that old, rugged cross.

Ash Wednesday is a day of sorrow over sin, but it is also a day in which we remember the peace and joy of God’s forgiving love. Though we fall, we are forgiven.

What better way to begin our Lenten journey?


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