Ash Wednesday & A Public Faith
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always enjoyed the public nature of Ash Wednesday. That is to say, what happens when we leave an Ash Wednesday service and there is the sign of the cross, for all who cross our paths to see. Recently I began to ask why is it that I have always liked this public semi-confession of faith. And I think the answer lies, at least in part, because of the posture in which we go in public with the sign of the cross.
The posture is, or at least it should be, one of humility. The sign of the cross is not etched in gold or silver. It’s not filled with ostentatious “bling” to demonstrate our status. (a status that of course would separate us from our fellow brothers and sisters) It is made instead with ash, not exactly a fashion icon, but rather a sign of death. Common, every day, ordinary death.
It is a reminder that this life is shorter than we think, and it orients us back to the most important death of all. And while I am sure some people have been offended by a public sign of faith; I’ve never heard of such a thing around Ash Wednesday. Perhaps in Ash Wednesday, is a paradigm though which we might view public faith in an increasingly post-Christian world.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
“But I Don’t Want to Die”
My friend Tim is a manager of a small company. Because he often hires people for their first full-time job, he gets to tell new employees about their benefits. One time, Tim was trying to explain to a man how life insurance works, but the man seemed unhappy. It was almost as if he didn’t want this benefit. Tim was persistent, nevertheless. “If you die,” he said, “then your family will get a lot of money.” The new employee finally was able to verbalize his concern, “But Tim,” he responded somberly, “I don’t want to die!”
I expect most of us feel like this, even if we don’t say it. We embrace life and don’t want to consider death. Many things in our culture keep us from facing the reality of death. We work hard to remain youthful in appearance and healthy in body so as to delay the inevitable. We’d rather not think about the fact that we will die.
Thus, we may be less than happy with Genesis 3:19. Though originally addressed by God to the first man, this verse speaks to all of us, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is the bad news we’d rather avoid, the bad news of our mortality, our inevitable death. And it is bad news, news that God had not intended for us in the beginning. Death, with physical and spiritual dimensions, is a result of sin. As we read in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death.” So, even as we were created from dust, we will return to the dust, the dust of death.
Yet, thanks be to God, the bad news of death is not the last word on the subject. Romans 6:23 continues, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life, according to Scripture, is not just heavenly post-mortem existence. Rather, it is the life of the future that we can begin to experience now.
…When we recognize that we are dust and will return to dust, when we accept our mortality, when we acknowledge the bad news that we will die because of sin, then we are prepared to hear and receive the good news of the gospel. Then we are ready to put off our old, deathly way of living and put on new life in Christ. When we face our mortality, we are ready to embrace our immorality.
A Dual Identity
Some of my favorite heroes have a dual identity: Clark Kent is Superman; Bruce Wayne is Batman; Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The list goes on and on. You and I also have a dual identity, though, unlike the comic book heroes, our dual identity isn’t secret. It’s plainly revealed in Scripture, beginning in Genesis 2:7.
The first aspect of our dual identity is the earthly, material one. The NRSV says that “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground.” This is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew original, though it misses a crucial play on words. “Man” in Hebrew, is adam (which can mean “humankind,” “male person,” or the name “Adam”). “Ground” is adamah. So God created the man (adam) from the ground (adamah). The earth is not only the place in which we work. It is also a part of us. We belong to the earth. We are made of dust.
Yet this is not the whole story. God not only fashioned us from the earth as a potter makes a pot out of clay. Genesis 2:7 also says that God “breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The word for breath here (neshamah) is reserved in the Bible for God and human beings. In other words, God breathed into the man, not just any old air, but rather God’s own breath, the breath that gives life. The man, though formed from the dust, is also a receptacle of the divine life.
Thus, human beings have an essential material identity and an essential immaterial identity. We are a combination of dust and God’s breath. We are both natural and, in a sense, supernatural.
“Does My Ash Look All Right?”
One Ash Wednesday a decade ago, when I was new to Anglicanism, I knelt at a rail as Fr. Thomas, my priest, smeared a black cross on each forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he intoned, and marked the preteen girl kneeling next to me. Then, I heard her turn to her mom and whisper, “Does my ash look all right?”
Still kneeling, I started to laugh. Because of course it didn’t look all right. She had a large black smudge in the middle of her forehead. There is no way for that to look all right.
But I also laughed because I heard my own heart in her question. I know I’m limited. I know I’m dust and returning to dust. I bear vulnerability, weariness, and mortality. I bear sin, selfishness, and struggle. But I still want to, you know, look okay.
I want to pretend I am still all right. I have it together. It’s a well practiced facade. I’m a ten-year old girl with a big, black smudge on my face hoping to somehow pass as acceptably cool.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
On the whole, though, Catholics (and Protestants) aren’t identifiable at first glance. Yet, on Ash Wednesday I’m always surprised by the number of people I see on the streets and in the subways sporting black smudges on their foreheads. And sometimes, despite the tacit but rarely broken code of not making eye contact on the subway, someone will notice your ashes and you’ll exchange The Nod, a kind of half-smile and tilt of the head that acknowledges that we’re not as distant from each other as we think.
The Origin of the Imposition of Ashes
The imposition of ashes, now a familiar Ash Wednesday tradition in Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant churches, has its roots in an early church penitential practice. For people who had been excluded from the church for serious sin, the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent served as a public sign of their repentance.
These sinners then undertook acts of penance throughout Lent and were formally restored to the church community at Easter. By the end of tne eleventh century this practice had became less directed to particular kinds of sinners, and the imposition of ashes was prescribed for all Christians in the Western church at the beginning of Lent—a season that was becoming increasingly focused on repentance.
The Roots of Ash Wednesday
Since the seventh century, the Western church has observed the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday—the fortieth day before Easter, not counting Sundays. In addition to providing ample time for self-examination and spiritual reorientation, the duration of forty days symbolically aligns Lent with biblical examples of preparation, fasting, and journeying toward liberation—
recalling, for instance, Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, as well as the Israelites’ forty years of desert-wandering before their deliverance into the Promised Land. Among most traditions, this first day of Lent is set aside as a special day of fasting; the Roman Catholic Church, for example, allows for the consumption of one meal or two small meals on Ash Wednesday, setting this day aside, with Good Friday, for more rigorous fasting.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Ash Wednesday. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!