Ash Wednesday: a day of reflection

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that unites all Christians.
Whether you believe in a historical Adam or not.
Whether you believe in a young earth, an old earth, or evolutionary creation.
We all realise: “dust you are and to dust you will return”.

Today we reflect on our mortality. By doing that, we realise the importance of preparing for the inevitable. So let us fast, and think how we can repent and change our lives. Because everyone who says he or she is without sin, is a liar (1 John 1:8).

Food and entertainment are good. But they can be abused. The same applies to doctrine. Perhaps we are right. But does “being right” make us proud? Like the Pharisee who praised himself and despised the tax collector? (I am not saying truth is not important.)

I myself am often guilty of this. Luckily the apostle Paul gave excellent advice:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

(1 Corinthians 13:1-8, NIV)

And here are some wonderful passages about fasting:

Isaiah 58:1-8
Joel 2:12-17
Luke 18:9-14

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

(My thanks go to the two books that inspired this post:
“All’s Well That Ends Well: From Dust to Resurrection: 40 days with Shakespeare” by Peter Graystone.
“New Tasks for the Renewed Church” by Tom Wright.)


The church I attend is not liturgical, and I think we are the poorer for it many times. A time to mourn
our disobedience and repent, to reflect on our mortality, is good to have set aside for emphasis.


The church I attend is not liturgical and personally, I don’t agree with the theology of Ash Wednesday viz.“reflecting on our mortality”. Because, I think, as Christians, we already have been given eternal life and are not mortal in any substantive sense. “Death” for us is just a momentary transition into God’s presence. Rather, it seems more appropriate to me that Christians would celebrate that death has lost its sting!

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Sadly my church does neither. So you have to participate on your own initiative.

And yes, I also think it makes us poorer. Richard Beck has written an interesting book about this: “Hunting Magic Eels, Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age”. From the introduction:

Our world is secular, skeptical, and scientific. Five hundred years ago, life was enchanted. … But with the Protestant Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the Enlightenment, the world — in the West, at least — has grown increasingly disenchanted. …

“Faith is a matter of perception. Faith isn’t forcing yourself to believe unbelievable things; faith is overcoming attentional blindness. Phrased differently, faith is about enchantment or, rather, a re-enchantment: the intentional recovery of a holy capacity to see and experience God in the world. Without this ability, pervasive cultural disenchantment erodes our faith, and we’re seeing the effects all around us, in our homes, in pews, and in the culture at large. …

“[W]hen faith is reduced to moral or political performance, life with God is stripped of its strange, startling, sacred magic. Faith becomes being a good neighbor and voting well. … An enchanted faith is, by contrast, a wonder- and joy-filled adventure with God, opening the wardrobe door and finding yourself in Narnia.


I agree that if we had to choose, we should celebrate the resurrection. But that is exactly what Lent is about. It starts on Ash Wednesday with reflection on death. We begin with an ending. But it ends with Easter! The victory over death! Pondering about death makes us even more thankful.

I understand your take, but I think the idea is quite Biblical. Jesus talking about treasures on earth and in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) seem to remind us of how temporary everything is.

Also James 4:13-15,

“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”” (NIV)

And even in the ritual of Ash Wednesday, we can find a sign of the gift of live through Jesus:

“Jesus is reminding us that our many immortality projects never succeed in making us very immortal. They only succeed in making us feel motheaten, rusty, and ultimately ripped off. Ash Wednesday, with its visible sign of dust and ashes on our foreheads, is a forcible reminder of our own frailty and mortality and sinfulness. We don’t like to remember those parts of ourselves, but on this day, it is literally rubbed onto us. Scholars and monks in the middle ages would sometimes keep a human skull on their shelves to remind themselves of the brevity of this our life. A skull kept for this purpose was called a memento mori, which is Latin for “remember to die.” Remembering the end of all flesh, these monks and scholars could better hold this world in contempt and strive to devote themselves to the eternal love of God.

“The mark of ash rubbed onto our foreheads can likewise serve as our own memento mori. But for us the mark is made in the shape of a cross. Thus it is not only a reminder of our own deaths but also a reminder of the death of one who suffered agony in our place, the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who died that we might live, that we might have treasures in heaven.”

(Paul J. Willis, “What Shakespeare Taught Me About Ash Wednesday”)


But that is my point…Easter is (in my mind) the appropriate posture of Christians towards death it begins with the death on Good Friday and ends with…a celebration of triumph over death. And it is the holiday celebrated by the church since the earliest time in the first century. So, I see no point in remembering or celebrating an anachronistic view that “we are mortal” on another day. Ash Wednesday was a much later accretion into the church during the 11th century…one that I see not only an unnecessary accretion into tradition, but one which (can) promote an incorrect theology of death. But I’m aware this view ruffles the feathers of some… In any case, I choose not to participate in Ash Wed. :wink:


I really enjoy Beck’s blog, and even the title is provocative in that it reminds us that our theology is something we need to explore and act upon. Anyway, here are his thoughts on Ash Wednesday form last year, that I think broaden the scope to something @klw can appreciate:

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I think about that too. It’s funny, in the evangelical church I grew up in, there were several former Catholics who attended and they didn’t always look fondly on their childhood faith because they didn’t learn how to “be saved” or some of the other doctrines emphasized in evangelicalism, and would talk about things like “empty rituals” (which is certainly worth being cautious about).

But some in my generation seem to be reversing the trend and becoming more drawn to the liturgy. Maybe it was growing up with apologetics and so much arguing over abstract things and making sure you hold “right beliefs,” which can start to feel very empty after a while. Putting ashes on your forehead is very tangible – it touches you physically instead of being solely a mental assent to a “correct doctrine.”

As I get older, I feel like I understand Good Friday more. When I was a kid, it seemed unnecessary because it was such a downer and seemed to obscure Easter for a while. But now it makes me see Easter more clearly. I’ve been thinking more about the idea of “spiritual bypassing” as a way to dismiss or repress complicated emotions, and sometimes I think evangelicals can be guilty of that when we try to skip to the “good part” of a story without really feeling the darkness that makes it what it is. Parsing the relationship between physical and spiritual things can be difficult.


Hi Jim,
Thanks, yes, I resonated with this phrase from the author which sort of mirrors my own cynicism around the supposed “fad” for protestants taking up liturgical rituals:

"You can thrill to the aesthetics of the ritual and liturgy with minimal (or zero) metaphysical commitments. An existential Ash Wednesday is an emotional experience you curate to feel moody, angsty, and deep, perfect for cultivating a sophisticated and sagacious self-image and its associated social media persona: “Look at me, I enjoy contemplating death! I am deep!”

And I appreciate the author’s broader framing of the day as focused on “penitence” as opposed to mortality. Penitence is indeed an important practice for Christians but this is something (in my tradition) we do every time before we take communion, i.e., “examine yourself and if you have any grudge with another, make it right before participating in the Lord’s Supper”. So I still don’t see the need to adopt another ritual in order for believers to be serious about penitence, when that ritual (Ash Wednesday) comes with so much other theological baggage over the years. Maybe protestant Christians should renew the meaning and depth of the current sacramental rituals they have…two that Jesus actually instituted: baptism and the Lord’s supper? I think there is deep theological meaning to be mined there.

And Lent…I appreciate the sentiment for examining oneself and perhaps giving something up, or repenting of something in order to reorient your life more closely to Jesus. But then why do it for only 40 days? I would hope to make PERMANENT life-changes after introspection and finding that something is off-mark in my life. Such changes are difficult and not something performative like giving up chocolate for a month… Here my cynicism of the thrill of public performance with minimal metaphysical commitments comes to the fore again…

—end rant---- :slight_smile:


I’m sure there are dangers of “compartmentalizing” spiritual practices into different times of year, but I also see the potential beauty of seasons. We humans don’t seem to be very good at this whole “permanence” thing. Probably we need a mix of both to keep our outlooks fresh.


Yes, I do agree that some physical ritual-reminders can be useful for humans, but I see this (introspection, and contemplating Jesus’s sacrifice and our response) happening within the church practice of communion which cycles around “seasonally” every month (in my church practice).

I also would support seasons of one’s church, or myself as an individual, taking up a period of serious fasting or prayer, but this would be centered intentionally on a current event or pressing issue in the life of the church. I think churches (including my denomination) have tended to become a bit lazy on serious fasting and prayer, which I do think could be very spiritually useful if intentional and targeted.


I’m picking up on this because I think it’s a common aspect of the western worldview, a dualism between the “secular” and the “sacred”, between the “physical” and the “spiritual”. I think NT Wright will be trying to counteract some of this gnostic/ platonic inheritance in Christian thought in the lectures some of us are discussing in another thread (here’s a plug for that thread!).

The way I see it, the whole creation is sacred space to God and us. God sustains the physical, works through the physical and values the physical. The beauty of the Christian message is that there is no “mundane” living for a Christian, we truly have access to, and can experience, God everywhere. But it IS often a human challenge to see God in the everyday. I think humans naturally want to construct rituals and fancy temple-spaces to generate those tingly emotions of transcendence and “spirituality”. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with beauty and awe. But for me, rather than becoming side-tracked by a ritual (which I also think is a human tendency), I hope to cultivate a practice and worldview of learning to see God and experience him during my every-day. Christ above me, Christ below me, Christ to my left, to my right, Christ in me, Christ all around me. Help me become more aware of the truth of his living presence!


One can ask why Christians bother to celebrate Easter or Christmas as well. I mean, if we aren’t celebrating and living that out every day we are doing it wrong. To live is Christ, to die is gain. Who needs a C&E Christian?

But we are mortal, we are sinful, having liturgy, having order, having structure, having Holy Days to slow us down, stop us and get us to contemplate and think is necessary.

If we were all perfect Christians we wouldn’t need any holidays. Since the opposite is true I find lent to be a wonderful and useful thing.

So many Christian’s are also “pie in the sky,” and reflecting on our mortality has us reflect on our sin, reflect on the life of Jesus and our need for reconciliation. Focusing on our mortality also brings about acknowledging that only God gives us eternal life.



Except, as believers, we are no longer mortal in any substantive sense. What is truly “us” goes immediately to live with God after our death, and the fact that our physical bodies temporarily may go to dust before they are resurrected as new bodies is not something I view of great theological consequence necessary to dwell on.

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Very astute observation!

I agree that making permanent changes is very important. Nonetheless, I think temporary periods have some benefits:

  1. Imagine you decide to not watch any entertainment (sports, movies, YouTube, TV, Netflix) and eat only one meal a day. You can’t do that the whole year,.
  2. Having an established timeframe helps to actually do it. My parents always did and still do family worship on Thursday. Without a decided date, it is very easy to forget about it
  3. It makes things easier when you do it together. For example, I also practise the Sabbath. But my family doesn’t. That creates some practical problems.

Jesus, Daniel and Esther also fasted temporarily. (Lent is also based on Jesus’ fast after his baptism.) But this would indeed more apply to what you said here:

Agreed. That’s why Jesus said you should fast with the right motivation. But I realise that Matthew 6:16-18 is rather an argument against fasting when others know you are doing it (such as with Lent).

I appreciate your sense of humour haha. :face_with_hand_over_mouth:

Well said, balance is key!


In your view but I feel pretty mortal. I’m Im in hospital with my wife right now. I’m sure a lot of these people are feeling mortal now as well.

We are all subject to physical death, suffering and its pains. Jesus felt it in Gethsemane. Honestly, what you are advocating seems a little too much like “theology in the clouds to me.”

Death and suffering is not the same but it’s still death and suffering. I think mortality is tied in with our physical bodies which decay and break down. This isn’t just an issue of where do I go when I die.

And thinking of our mortality leads us to thinking of our reconciliation. When I forget I’m mortal I forget I need God.


But if both Jesus and his brother James urge their adience to dwell on it, why shouldn’t we?

Even if it is only to strenghten “weaker” Christians, it would be worth the effort. Although I think every Christian needs to dwell on it. Otherwise it would not have been included in scripture.

“For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13-17, NIV)

I am very sorry to hear about your situation. :disappointed_relieved: But I am sure that everyone who reads your post will be praying for you! :pray: :brown_heart:

Sincere condolences to you. I think suffering is truly a part of a Christian’s life and not something to be glibly brushed off. In my own theology, though, I can persist through such suffering precisely because I have confidence that death has lost its sting and no longer has a hold on me. The way I see it, this is not just “pie in the sky” but a true Christian hope. It is not just a belief for the sweet-by-and-by but a belief that sustains me in the very real pain and suffering I currently experience on this side of heaven.


A Lutheran church near where I went to grad school had an interesting trio of high attendance: Easter was the highest, Christmas was second, and Ash Wednesday was third. On each of those they had attendance that was greater than the membership list (including children). I surmise that on Ash Wednesday people from churches without that tradition were coming for the Liturgy of Ashes.

I couldn’t get out this year and it just feels strange to not have gotten the ashes.

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