Ash Wednesday is my favorite day in the church calendar. I know that might sound odd. As a nondenominational Pentecostal kid, I recall seeing the Catholics in our little central Wisconsin town wander around with ashes rubbed on their foreheads and thinking it strange. Even now, I admit that Ash Wednesday is austere. It is stark and unvarnished. It hits you like a slap in the face, like a swig of vinegar, like a bucket of cold water on the head.
The collect for the day gets serious right away, as it underscores God’s forgiving nature and our wretchedness:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.1
Next the celebrant calls us to further austerities like “self-examination and repentance,” like “prayer, fasting, and self-denial” and “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Then we are plunged into a long prayer of confession that asks us to consider all the ways we have used, abused, despoiled, and polluted ourselves, our neighbors, and indeed God’s whole creation.2 Truth be told, we probably didn’t walk into the service thinking that we were guilty of these things, but now that you mention it, perhaps we are.
Why in the world would anyone love that? I’ll tell you why. Because there is nothing more liberating than the truth.
Ash Wednesday is the church’s annual reminder to itself, and to any and all who would listen, that the jig is up. We don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to act like things are better than they are. The time for posing and posturing is over. There is only us, together, before the God who judges and saves us. We are invited to lay aside illusion and pretension and to discover once again the truth of which the psalmist spoke, in a passage that is traditionally read on Ash Wednesday:
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children,
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust. (Ps. 103:11–14 BCP 1979)
Yahweh knows what we are made of, and it is not altogether impressive: Dust. Dirt. Or as the Irish philosopher-poet John O’Donohue liked to say: “clay.”3 Has this dust been shaped and given breath by the spirit of God? Of course, Scripture never loses sight of this. But neither does it lose sight of our fundamental human frailty, captured tersely in that simple, four-letter word, dust.
The Creator is not surprised, scandalized, or put out by our creaturely conditions and limitations. Indeed, God knows them through and through. God has, according to the church’s deepest and best convictions, inhabited them forever in Christ and made them part of the divine life. In being summoned into the infinite perfection and goodness of the triune life, we are not expected to leave the limitations of our finitude behind but, rather, to humbly acknowledge them, laying them before the mercy that not only keeps us alive but also draws us—in all of our dustiness—into blessedness, our clay frames not discarded but transfigured, transformed, lifted up into glory.
And that is why I don’t just love Ash Wednesday in some soapy, sentimental, aesthetic way. It would be better, I think, to say that I need Ash Wednesday, that we all need Ash Wednesday. To me, Ash Wednesday offers a deep, spiritual, existential relief. I am seen. I am known.
And also—I am summoned to more. Ash Wednesday is an encounter with the Truth that digs the truth out of me, meeting me where I am but refusing to leave me there. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to the wholeness that comes by way of repentance, to the life-transforming union with Goodness itself that is the deepest and most fundamental desire of the human heart. What could be better than that?
Years ago, I wandered into the office of a counselor, seeking wisdom over some soul pain I had been carrying. When the counselor asked me to describe what was bothering me, I launched into an elaborate account of the many ways that some people close to me had been guilty of making my life more difficult than it should have been. The counselor listened, with great empathy and patience, and then began to slowly and deliberately help me to reframe my account. “Tell me more about this,” he said. “What about this?” he asked. “Have you noticed the connection here?” he pressed. And then finally, “Are you sure this is really about them? Isn’t it actually about you?”
Have you ever had a moment like that? A moment where your world tilts and you see everything in a new light, where time seems to stop, where you know that the work is yours to do and that the road will not be easy but you now see a door of freedom standing open before you, inviting you to enter?
Those moments are rare and exquisite. When inside them, we feel we are touching the core of reality; we sense that we are seeing the face of God—neither permissive nor condemning, but telling the truth about us and thereby saving us. Tears are often quick to follow. The ancients called this compunctio.4 We call it repentance. We may also call it freedom.
Such freedom is what the Lord mercifully invites us to. It is what Ash Wednesday is for—radical, unvarnished, I’m-not-blaming-everyone-else honesty that brings us to spiritual maturity. We echo David’s entreaty: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses” (Ps. 51:1). We heed Isaiah’s warning and promise: “If you remove . . . the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil . . . then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday” (Is. 58:9b, 10b NRSV). It’s not about them, we realize. It’s about us. That moment of honesty is the seminal moment for a new beginning. Liberation beckons.
C. S. Lewis has described this journey in his novel Till We Have Faces. The main character, a young woman named Orual, has a grievance against the gods, and she is permitted an opportunity to state her grievance before them. She rises in the great tribunal to make her case—a long and ironclad one, or so she thought. After what seems to have been a great deal of time, the judge finally stops her: “Enough,” he bellows. She reports:
There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice. There was silence in the dark assembly long enough for me to have read my book out yet again. At last the judge spoke. “Are you answered?” he said. “Yes,” said I.5
The time for Orual’s finger-pointing was over. “The complaint,” she says, “was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered.” Orual realizes the absurdity of her long affair with self-righteousness and is undone. “I saw well,” she says, “why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word [the word of truth] can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”6
That is the gift that Ash Wednesday represents—both to the church and, to the extent that it is able to hear it, the world as well. It is a time to admit, in full-throated honesty, that we are not well, that our communities are not well, and that the world around us is not well. It is a time to confess that our well-intentioned plans and projects are failing, that our utopian dreams are backfiring, and that our ambitions for self-improvement are collapsing under the weight of our own capacity for self-deception and sabotage. And—this is crucial—it is a time to accept that there is no one to blame but ourselves.
We halt, defenseless, before the great tribunal of heaven and earth. And then the word of promise rings out: “‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
God is helping us. God is for us. God does not intend to leave us in our helplessness.
Are we dust? Of course. We will never leave our created frame behind. And yet, those dusty frames are bound to the Lord in the cords of covenant love; they are destined for glory. We are summoned to more in Christ Jesus, who took on those dusty frames and who, by the Spirit, is making us heirs with him of the kingdom. This is what is so unique about Ash Wednesday.
The world, of course, knows all about honesty—or a version of it, anyway. We celebrate the courageous person who rises up above the noise of their situation to live their authentic self, and we applaud them for doing so. We are told that we each need to live our truth in the world. But the problem with such attempts at honesty and truthfulness is that they lack a horizon of goodness beyond the bald exercise of freedom itself.
The church’s honesty—the honesty we are called into on Ash Wednesday—is different. It is an honesty juxtaposed against the vision of the divine-human life presented to us by and in Christ Jesus, an honesty situated within the knowledge that now indeed is the acceptable time, that now in fact is the day of salvation, where God, through the Spirit, is present to burn wickedness out of us, completing our humanity in that perfect coherence of beauty, goodness, and truth that is the triune God. In a word, Ash Wednesday is about grace. The grace that saves us and makes us whole, if we’ll receive it. We just have to admit that we need it.
In the months following the events of September 11, 2001, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas was quoted as saying that the most appropriate response from the church to that national tragedy ought to have been a time of repentance.7 Though some balked at his words (and perhaps balk even now), they deserve our attention. The church, at is best, is a penitent, humble, broken community. We don’t beat our chests or claim moral superiority over non-Christians. Instead, the gospel calls us to realize that we are bound up inextricably within the total web of humanity so that we share not only humanity’s joys and hopes but also its sorrows and burdens. The words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ring true in the church: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”8
We have a part to play in the unfolding of world history, and on Ash Wednesday we remember that the best and most honest place to start is with these words from the Book of Common Prayer, which challenge our hubris, inviting us instead to humility:
Most holy and merciful Father: We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.9
And we therefore plead for mercy. It’s the only way we will be able to play our part in that unfolding history truthfully, for, as the saying goes, humilitas est veritas. Humility is the truth. Only a humble people can live truthfully. Only a penitent people can cease and desist with the babble and begin to speak prophetically to the world.
And speak prophetically we must. To the many abuses and injustices of our time, to the myriad ways in which God’s image is marred in humanity, to the outright lies and half-truths that masquerade as wisdom. The bright light of the gospel needs to shine out from the church to the world, but it will not do so unless the church can find a way to her knees, turning eyes and heart to heaven, abandoning finger-pointing, blame-mongering, and every strategy of self-justification, pleading for mercy, begging for help.
Many centuries ago, one of Israel’s harshest critics, the prophet Hosea, energetically called his people to precisely that place: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (Hosea 6:1 NIV). Israel, lost in waywardness, was reaping the devastating consequences of sin. But Hosea holds out hope. “Return to the Lord,” he says. There is healing. The wounds may yet be bound up. The future may break open before you once again.
Just stop pretending. God knows all and sees all. God is the one before whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid.”10 There is nowhere to hide. And there is no need to hide. God is merciful. He can make it all right again.
That’s why we need Ash Wednesday. Hard as it may be, it’s a homecoming. A return to sense and sanity. An invitation to blessing.
So, come, let us return to the
- “Ash Wednesday,” in The Book of Common Prayer (New York, NY: Oxford, 1990), 264.
- “Ash Wednesday,” 265.
- See, for example, John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (New York, NY: Harper, 1997), where this is a prominent theme.
- The word compunctio in ancient literature tended to refer to the holy grief that either follows sin or precedes pondered sin. Even where the word is not used, the concept is prevalent. See, for example, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1975), where such grief and tears are a near constant state for many of the fathers.
- C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1984), 292–3.
- Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 294.
- This thought came out in a few different places for Hauerwas. One notable instance was in a reflection he wrote for South Atlantic Quarterly. After decrying the culture of the denial of death that he saw in the so-called war on terrorism, he noted the alternative witness of the church, embodied particularly in the confession of sins, saying, “We believe by so living we offer our non-Christian brothers and sisters an alternative to all politics based on the denial of death. Christians are acutely aware that we seldom are faithful to the gifts God has given us, but we hope the confession of our sins is a sign of hope in a world without hope” (Hauerwas, “September 11, 2001: A Pacifist Response,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 2 [Spring 2002]: https://today.duke.edu/showcase/mmedia/features/911site/hauerwas.html).
- Heschel, The Prophets (New York, NY: Harper, 2001), 19.
- “Ash Wednesday,” 267.
- “The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two,” in The Book of Common Prayer, 355.