The Wisdom of Ashes: Understanding Ash Wednesday

“We are all going to die.”

Not the news you wanted to hear today, I’m sure. But this inescapable reality is important to embrace for the sake of our life with God and our formation.

In his book, Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr writes about the five promises of male initiation. While the book specifically investigates male spirituality, I believe Rohr’s message speaks across the board.  He gives 5 promises or life messages that we should embrace so as to have a deep spirituality that connects us with God and the world around us. The messages are:

  • Life is hard
  • You are not important
  • Your life is not about you
  • You are not in control
  • You are going to die

Regarding the last life message, “You are going to die”, the Church, for centuries has sought to remind us about this truth in a redemptive way. Ash Wednesday (and the season of Lent) has created an annual formation rhythm to lead us in recognizing the fragility and limitations of our humanity. Yet, many in the Evangelical/Pentecostal world have not received this gift.

The Mark of the Beast?

Growing up in an Evangelical/Pentecostal church tradition, Ash Wednesday wasn’t even on the radar. My first encounter with Ash Wednesday was as an 18-year old in Manhattan. A few weeks after starting a new job, I recall going on a lunch break. What I saw literally freaked me out.

I was startled to see scores of people with black stuff on their foreheads. I wasn’t spiritually mature (I had just become a Christian), theologically trained, or ecclesiastically informed, so I took it that the black stuff on their foreheads had something to do with the Anti-Christ and the Mark of the Beast (seriously). For the next hour, I experienced existential dread. The anti-Christ has come. Armageddon is about to ensue. I found out from a co-worker when I returned from lunch that the black stuff had to do with Ash Wednesday. Whew!

Since then, I have gone from fear, to indifference, to deep appreciation for Ash Wednesday (and the season of Lent). I realized that I was influenced by an evangelical tradition that judged all ritual and those who participated in it as superstitious or legalistic. Little did I know that there was a means of blessing and grace available.

Ash Wednesday kicks off the Lenten season. Lent is a 40-day period of repentance and preparation for Easter. We begin this holy season by living according to a wisdom that our contemporary Christian and non-Christian world often rejects.

For those opposed to this day (and season) or for those who are indifferent to it, I want to underscore the importance of it for our maturation in Christ. There is a wisdom in ashes, which is to lead us to being life-giving witnesses in the world. There is a wisdom in ashes, which is to lead us to being life-giving witnesses in the world. Click To Tweet

Ashes and the Wisdom of Ritual

Every year at our Ash Wednesday service at New Life Fellowship, our pastors will put the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those in our community and say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words have been repeated through the ages and point us to the power and wisdom of ritual.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser notes,

Everywhere we are warned about the dangers of doing something simply because it is duty, that there is something wrong when the movements of love, prayer, or service become routine. Why do something if your heart isn’t in it? There is something legitimate in these warnings: Duty and commitment without heart will not ultimately sustain themselves.

However, with that being admitted, it is important to recognize and name the fact that any relationship in love, family, church, or prayer can only sustain itself over a long period through ritual and routine. Ritual sustains the heart, not vice versa.

The annual ritual of the imposition of ashes concretely reminds us our inevitable death. This ritual (as every ritual is to do) is to ground us in reality. This is one of the great gifts of the Church. Whether it is bread, wine, water or ashes, the rituals of the Church are to orient our hearts towards God. Whether it is bread, wine, water or ashes, the rituals of the Church are to orient our hearts towards God. Click To Tweet

Ashes and the Wisdom of Repentance

In scripture, repentance and ashes go hand in hand. Ash Wednesday orients our lives in this way.  Now, typically, when we hear the word, “repentance” we often understand it through the lens of moralism. We hear repent and think, “do away with those dirty sins.” Change your life. Get in line! Clean yourself up!

But these words and lens lack the grace that repentance carries with it. When Jesus preaches repentance, it’s because the kingdom of heaven has come near. God has come close to us. Repentance is about joyfully and intentionally adjusting one’s life to this reality.

Repentance is a radical change of direction in response to God’s grace. In this respect, Ash Wednesday invites us to have our lives more fully marked in this way.

To repent is to acknowledge that a life turned away from God doesn’t contribute to human flourishing. In this regard, the ashes signify a turn of heart that leads to life. To repent is to acknowledge that a life turned away from God doesn’t contribute to human flourishing. In this regard, the ashes signify a turn of heart that leads to life. Click To Tweet

Ashes and the Wisdom of Weakness

The ashes also represent our weakness, humanity and the fragility of life. We are human and not God. Therefore, we are given an opportunity to recognize our limitations and choose to not live with the guilt of being human. Ash Wednesday is not a day to live in guilt. It’s a day to recognize our brokenness, humanity and trust in God’s love. It’s a day to freely come before God and declare, “I am human, I am dust, and you still love me.”

In a culture that tends to deny weakness, Ash Wednesday’s wisdom is sorely needed. This day is to ground us as limited people created in God’s image. Ash Wednesday is about confessing to each other and to God that we are weak and that we will one day die. This confession is the prerequisite of living wisely and redemptively in the world (Psalm 90:12).

Jean Vanier has said,Each one of us finds it enormously difficult to accept himself as he is, with that extraordinary mixture of weakness and strength, ignorance and wisdom, light and darkness, love and hate. In fact, we flee from something that I’d call our vulnerability, our immense fragility.”

Ashes and the Wisdom of Incarnation

The word of God spoken through the imposition of ashes offer a theological convergence. Dust and divinity are wrapped together.  Word and weakness collide. We have seen this before.

In the person of Jesus, God comes to us wrapped in human flesh. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The creation narrative in Genesis speaks of God breathing life into humanity. The convergence of dust and divinity is a running theme in scripture.

The earthiness of the ashes serves as a critique to a hyper-spiritualism. It’s a rejection of a neo-Gnostic approach to the spiritual life that wrongly asserts that all meaningful spiritual realities are to be found in an intangible experience. The ashes teach us that true spirituality is rooted in the mundane. It’s rooted in the earthiness of the human experience.

The ashes are to lead us in working against the powers of death in our world. The ashes are to make us rooted in the affairs of everyday life.

Ashes and the Wisdom of Death and Resurrection

When seen in larger context, Ash Wednesday sets in motion the pattern of the good news. It’s the start of a season that takes us into the land of resurrection. While it is true that “you are dust and to dust you shall return,” it is also true that God’s final word to the world is resurrection. Ash Wednesday points us not to a despairing of death, but to the death of despair. We are being pointed to a glorious reality of life. But that life isn’t possible without death.

In a culture that spends billions trying to deny aging and death, Ash Wednesday offers a different way of seeing life. Ash Wednesday points us not to a despairing of death, but to the death of despair. Click To Tweet

On this Ash Wednesday consider a few questions for reflection:

  • Where am I refusing to embrace weakness?
  • What might it look like to repent in this season (i.e., aligning your life to the reality of God’s nearness)?
  • How might God be calling you to the work of incarnational mission?

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