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> Christianity F.A.Q. > Ash Wednesday

What is the meaning and purpose of Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is a wake-up call. Ash Wednesday hits us squarely between the eyes, forcing us to face mortality and sinfulness. We hear Scripture readings that are urgent and vivid. We have black ashes rubbed into our foreheads. We recite a Litany of Penitence that takes our breath away, or should. It is a tough day, but take heart! This is one religious day that won’t fall into the clutches of retailers. There aren’t any Hallmark cards celebrating sin and death; no shop windows are decked out with sackcloth and ashes.

On Ash Wednesday we come to church to kneel, to pray, and to ask God’s forgiveness, surrounded by other sinners. Human sin is universal; we all do it, not only Christians. But our church tradition sets aside Ash Wednesday as a particular day to address sin and death. We do this mindful that "God hates nothing God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent." We are ALL sinners, no better and no worse than our brothers and sisters. This is not a day to compete ("my sins are worse than yours are"), but to confess….

Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent. We have forty precious days to open ourselves up most particularly to God, to examine ourselves in the presence of one who created us, knows us, and loves us. We have forty days to face ourselves and learn to not be afraid of our sinfulness. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but with God’s grace we can learn to live this life more fully, embracing our sinfulness, allowing God to transform us.

—The Rev. Margaret Jones
from “Ash Wednesday—A Wake-up Call”

Lent is about mortality and transformation. We begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday with the sign of the cross smeared on our foreheads with ashes as the words are spoken over us, "Dust thou art, and to dust thou wilt return." We begin this season of Lent not only reminded of our death, but also marked for death.

The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity—the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps—and being born into a new identity—an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.

Put slightly more concretely, this path of death and resurrection, of radical centering in God, may mean for some of us that we need to die to specific things in our lives—perhaps to a behavior or a pattern of behavior that has become destructive or dysfunctional; perhaps to a relationship that has ended or gone bad; perhaps to an unresolved grief that needs to be let go of; perhaps to a career or job that has either been taken from us or that no longer nourishes us; or perhaps even we need to die to a deadness in our lives.

You can even die to deadness, and this dying is also oftentimes a daily rhythm in our lives—that daily occurrence that happens to some of us as we remind ourselves of the reality of God in our relationship to God; that reminder that can take us out of ourselves, lift us out of our confinement, take away our feeling of being burdened and weighed down.

That's the first focal point of a life that takes Jesus seriously: that radical centering in the Spirit of God that is at the very center of the Christian life.

—Dr. Marcus Borg
from “Taking Jesus Seriously”

Ash Wednesday [is] the beginning of Lent. And the church does a strange thing on this day. For those who desire it, we place ashes on their foreheads as we say, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Sounds like the ultimate reductionist view: Humanity is nothing but dust. So what is the insight here, and what more is there to say?…

There is nothing pretty about dust.…To call someone dust in any other context would be fightin' words. Don't call me dirt. So why do we do this strange thing on this day. Remember, you are nothing but dust. What is this about?

First, this day reminds us of our creation. From Genesis 2, the second creation story in Genesis:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,
when no plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God
had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one
to till the ground... then the Lord God formed man from the dust
of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and
the man became a living being.

Dust is the material of a beloved creation. We cannot—must not—despise this loving work…. Remember that you are dust. You are not worth much as a commodity, but you are loved, beloved, shaped, molded, caressed, nurtured by the Loving God who made the stars and the moon, all the creatures of this world. Remember you are dust—precious, precious dust.

Second, this day reminds us of our mortality. "Dust your are and to dust you shall return."

I am reminded of the words from the burial office, "We commit this body to its final resting place, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

It's not morbid to think about death; it's just the reality we all face. Death is the great equalizer. In death there are no presidents of corporations, no deans of universities, no lowly janitors, no prisoners, no homeless on the street, no rich folks, no poor folks. All of us are in the hands of the loving God—that's it. The trinkets of honor and position—dust and ashes. The shame from others' judgments—dust and ashes. When we remember, to dust you shall return, we remember that we are made for more than trinkets or shame. We are made for life with God - now and forever.

"And to dust you shall return." Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal, and in so doing confronts us with a simple question: We have only one life. How do we want to spend it?

Third, when we understand how precious we are to the One who created us from dust, and when we understand that we are made not just for this life but for eternity with God, then we can be free. Freedom—personal freedom—comes from knowing who we are and where we are going. We are free from being affected by other people's judgment of us.

You know, it doesn't matter who you are, others can find fault. If you work hard, people will say you're uptight. If you enjoy life, people will say you're lazy. If you're wealthy, people will think you used and abused others to become rich. If you're poor, people will look down on you, pity you, and assume you are incompetent. It doesn't matter who you are, people can always find fault; they can always find a way to put you down….

The deep truth of Ash Wednesday —all those judgments do not matter….

We are human beings, dust, beloved of God; we—each one of us—are of ultimate worth….We are created for eternity! What is someone's criticism compared to that? We are free, free of others' judgment.…

We spend so much energy on things that don't matter: how we look—what people think of us—what we have or what others have— if we will get a promotion—whose sports team is going to win. We spend so much energy on things that don't matter.…

This, of course, is why Lent is a period of self-examination and penance. We need to stop and look at our lives—remember what we are made of, remember where we are going—and let go of all those things that don't really matter, all those things that get in the way of loving God, loving others, and being loved by God and by others.

Remember, you are nothing but dust: Precious dust, molded and formed in the womb by a loving God, precious, precious and beloved are you.

Remember, you are nothing but dust, and to dust shall you return: Unique and precious, you are created for eternity.

Remember, you are nothing but dust: And that makes you free—free from human ambition—free from prideful denial —free from fear—free; free at last!

Remember, Dust you are, and as dust you are loved and free.

—The Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing
from “The Freedom of Being Dust”

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