Ash Wednesday and Lent- Are Rituals Biologically Ingrained?

Thinking of Ash Wednesday, and having a little ash envy of those whose church tradition participates in it, got me to thinking not only of the meaning of the day but also why we long for ritual in our worship.
Some articles that I came across relating to Ash Wednesday:

And this one, that goes a little more into the psychology and theology:

Do you find comfort in ritual? Certainly, religious rituals are deeply imbedded with symbolism. Perhaps that is why those church traditions which have abandoned ritual, also are those who tend to read scripture more literally. Even they, however, have their own rituals and you will stir up a hornet’s nest if you change the order of service or how you serve communion, or maybe even change the color or carpet.

We see dogs circle about before they lay down to sleep, cats play with mice before chomping down, germs waiting 5 seconds before hopping on that cookie you dropped, so maybe there is something inborn.that leads us that way.


I belong to those with less rituals but have discussed about the significance of traditions with others. Some seem to benefit from traditions (fixed habits) and the use of symbols.

A common explanation why people value fixed habits in church services is that they can focus better on the core matter. When you know what happens next there are no surprises that would steal the attention.

There is also safety in what is associated with familiar and hoped habits. Our church building had a railing with an upholstered step in the front, intended for a place where people could kneel during the prayer service, if they wanted. When the front of the building was modernized, the railing was taken away. Some older members criticized the removal of the railing. They had seen numerous people kneeling there during the earlier years, some repenting or surrendering their life to Jesus, and wanted to see many more. What they did not notice was that habits had changed, most people coming to prayer service did not anymore kneel at the railing, they were either sitting on the front row or standing. The railing had become just an external symbol for something that did not need the railing. Maybe it would have been polite to leave a short piece of the railing to satisfy the hopes of those old persons but the removal was also a reminder that the visible structure was not a necessary thing in prayer. In addition, those wanting the structure to stay started to be so old they could not themselves kneel anymore.

The danger with fixed habits (a standardized pattern) is that some may ‘grow numb’ while sitting, their body is there but their mind may wander elsewhere. Some may feel bored. You just repeat what you are supposed to say during standardized prayers and other liturgy without really thinking what you are saying and doing. For some, a disturbance in the pattern (liturgy) may seem as an offence, even if it would be the Holy Spirit trying to wake our hearts and minds.

Some ‘rituals’ are based on rational.observations. For example, we try to keep the length of the service at about 1.5 hours. Practice has shown that this is a suitable length, people still have time and energy to participate to friendly chatter and sit at ‘church coffee’ (coffee/tea/juice + something sweet or salty) after the meeting. If the service stretches to more than two hours, many leave the building straight after the service.

To answer your question, I would say that there is something inborn that leads us to form fixed patterns (traditions) but it is not uniform. Some like it and benefit of it, some not. Probably a mixture of predictable and less predictable would be an optimal solution that would benefit most.

There is also some flexibility as we may have different expectations associated with different places or situations. In our family, all family members have different ways to behave when being out with our dog. The dog has adapted to the situation and has different expectations, depending on who is going out with the dog. It likes some things more than others but if the person acts in her/his ‘standard’ way, it is happy with the ‘standard’ way and enjoys from what it can get from that situation. Only if someone tries to drop of something liked from their personal ‘standard’ behavior (like throwing sticks or cones), the dog may refuse to cooperate.
I do not say that we are dogs but there are similarities.

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To stir up a hornet’s nest, I lift up the use of the cross. It is maybe the most loaded symbol of all symbols in Christianity. It is also part of the Ash Wednesday rituals as a catholic priest draws a cross on the forehead of a participant.

The good side is that such a symbol can lift up much of the core teaching in Christianity with one glimpse at a cross. It can also help focusing. I sometimes look at the empty cross on the wall of the church building when I try to focus on prayer because the cross reminds me of what Jesus did, died on the cross for us but also resurrected and is now our resurrected King that will one day return. We are crucified but also resurrected to a new life in Him.

The bad side is that any symbol can become a wrong focus of worship, like Nehustan (copper snake) in the OT. Cross is just a symbol but sometimes it is used like a magical thing, in a way that resembles sorcery more than anything positive.

Cross is sometimes used like a protective nice thing. What if we would one day change the crosses in our churches to hangman’s nooses? That would be a much friendlier symbol as hangman’s noose is not intended to maximize suffering. Cross is an instrument of extreme cruelty, intended to kill with maximal suffering. There is nothing nice in the cross as such. A horrible symbol.

It is strange how even the most horrible things can become liked symbols when the symbol is presented in the correct context.


Also an Anglican or Episcopalian priest. Anglo-American Catholic-lite. The priest can marry. I’ve been in Roman Catholic services and that was the only difference.


But what about contemporary worship music, painfully amplified, trite tunes, vacuous words, endless repetition?

Really? That’s offensive.

This discussion reminds me of this meme


All kind of music has those who like it and those who do not like it. My working hypothesis is that we value especially that kind of spiritual music we heard or used when we were young adults (or just after becoming a believer). Honoring different kind of music preferences within a congregation is a challenge, unless all are ‘forced’ to listen to a particular type of music (for example, traditional).

I agree that some bands (and mixers) tend to use painfully amplified music. I am not musically talented but my ears and brain suffer from too loud music. My solution has been to participate in the sound team (less volume when I am mixing) and asking lower volume if someone puts too much volume to loudspeakers. Has worked so far in our church.

If you think that was offensive, then you probably do not suffer from that problem. There are persons who want everything to go as previously planned and the traditions dictate. They do not like distracting or embarrassing disturbances, no matter who is causing the disturbance.

Sometimes there is a need for the Lord to try wake up the hearts and minds in a congregation that believes it is a living one but in reality is spiritually dying. Please read the messages to the churches in the Revelation. I believe congregations face similar type of problems even today.


Black people would love that.

I would suggest displaying a crucifix, not a cross.

So when Ukrainian Orthodox people pray for peace in their Divine Liturgy, they are not sincerely worshiping and need the evangelical holy spirit to shake them up?

I listened to the Concert for Ukraine last night and they performed the Mozart Requiem in remembrance of the war dead. What phillistine would remain unmoved by that?

Hey @GJDS did you know that liturgical churches are defective? (My church and your church)

Like Knor said, unlike you, not everyone has the insight to drink the wine without getting distracted by the chalice.

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I have found it difficult to understand this discussion. The Church has developed a tradition that enables the congregation to collectively worship and praise God for His Mercy and Grace (kiria eleison). The service also includes prayers for peace for all mankind, as well as individual acts of piety. If anyone is interested, they can find English translations of these.

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You said that, not I. I understand ‘liturgy’ in a wide sense, following fixed habits and elements in church services. Any church may develop their own ‘liturgy’, even if they do not like to call it liturgy. I recognize elements that could be called some sort of ‘liturgy’ in the ‘normal’ services of the local church I belong to, although the church is not normally classified among ‘liturgical churches’.

The crucial thing is what happens in the hearts and minds of the people that participate in the service. No matter what kind of music or elements the service include, the hearts and minds can be focused on the Lord, focused on something else, or not focused at anything particular. My observation is that having fixed elements and habits (liturgical formula) in the service may lull the minds of many participants to a state where they are not fully present, especially if they know the words they are expected to say during the liturgy. This may happen with old-fashioned liturgy and also with modern versions of it.
Many younger persons have also said that the services following fixed liturgy are boring, not something they would like to attend. That can be seen in the liturgical service of the Finnish lutheran church on an average Sunday, the few participants are predominantly old.

What is more important, guiding the hearts and minds of people towards God or replaying faithfully a particular type of liturgy? If you visit a church that manages to combine both, you are lucky.


It is very good if a congregation collectively worship and praise God for His Mercy and Grace. Even better if they are so overwhelmed by it that their whole life reflects it after they leave the service.

I value the collective prayer and worship of an assembled congregation, more than any individualistic emphasis. As long as the life of those participating truly reflects the teaching and values of Jesus and his apostles, I have nothing bad to say.

What is problematic is if the collective prayer and worship does not change the hearts and minds of those participating, if the everyday life of those visiting the church during Sundays does not show their faith. Another potential problem is if the numbers of those participating decline much because the traditional way to act does not reach the new generations.


This is a difficult statement, as only God can know what is in the heart of any of us. We can be understood by the way we live and act, but the vast majority of us live a peaceful and routine life (this may bore some?) and are content with being good neighbors.

How do you know that this is problematic? Only God can know (as I said). As for declining numbers, this may be the case for some congregations, and the reverse for others - the traditional liturgies (esp for the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and major protestant) have been practiced during periods when virtually everyone attended church, and also during times of fallen attendings. I think you may oversimplify.

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What is that supposed to mean?

You certainly implied that. Does your church have fixed services for weddings, funerals, and baptisms, or does your pastor like to wing it?

These are not mutually exclusive.

Enter Joseph Smith, who introduced new teachings and new scriptures to what seemed like boring old Christianity to some. His religion experienced explosive growth.

Also, it seems to be stances against science and LGTBQ+ rights that turn off the younger generations.

No fixed formulas but usually similar type of elements. Same basic questions asked in weddings and also baptisms happen with the same words said just before the baptism.

I believe it is a natural tendency in humans that this kind of special occasions get some kind of formula, fixed in some churches, more open in others. If there is a formula, it ensures that all necessary words are said. It would be embarrassing if the pastor would forget to ask ‘do you want to marry’ in a wedding or say the words ‘in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ during a baptism.

National atheist organization has tried to develop comparable formulas for their own weddings, funerals and other occasions, because they have noted that many persons want something like church weddings or funerals. The attempts of the atheist organization to establish their own formulas shows that it is common to value formulas in the special occasions of life.

I’m just going to ramble a bit because I think about these things. “Non-denominational” of course means non denominational Protestant. I feel drawn to Catholicism but I am not going to fully identify with either.

My experience in Protestant Church’s the last year.

15 minutes of worship music (repeat songs after a while)
Short prayer.
40 minute sermon.
Final worship song.

Communion First Sunday of every Month.

One even has a paper they give out with notes and runs series on topics.

Clockwork just like the Newtonian universe.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I had guests over for dinner and a complaint about Catholicism was raised since the Catholic Church pre-plans all the readings. It was suggested this leaves little room for the spontaneous interaction and movement of the Holy Spirit to give a specific message to the priest.

My response: you really think the Holy Spirit can’t work through a lectionary? Or that the Holy Spirit didn’t help produce the lectionary?

Apparently God is outside time, knows all, has our hair numbered, everything is foreordained, He knew us in the womb, and He is in all things working them for our good except when it’s Catholic pre-planned masses. So says an extremely pleasant and reasonable Protestant. Anti-Catholic bias abounds in such circles. But who knew a lectionary is God’s kryptonite. All God’s plans foiled by a Church curriculum.

On a related note, one thing I really like about the Chosen is how it shows Jewish people engaged in rituals like prayer in a very positive manner. It’s a healthy dose for a lot of Protestants. And the Lord’s Prayer alone is enough for me to support rituals and repetitive prayer in faith. If only I had a penny for every time an uncomfortable Protestant quickly claims at lightning speed: “that was just a template.”

I think we all need rituals. They can become mindless, like anything, but they can also keep us grounded and focused. We are all different in our needs of course and should leave the judgment on this aside. For me, I think of Christmas. I remember my grandfather not celebrating it as aJehovah’s Witness. When asked why he said he celebrates the birth of Christ every day. I really can’t argue with that and it has been commercialized to oblivion in the mainstream world. I can only say that I am weak and sinful and it helps me to have a special season in honor of the Birth of Jesus to keep me focused on what’s really important in life and my relationship with God. Without ritual and designated reminders, I’d quickly fall victim to myself and be drifting aimlessly at sea.

There is something about the tactile feel of a Rosary beads when praying that is extremely beneficial to me.

At any rate I think Protestants and Catholics have been too quick to judge one another. I can see the force in there being too much ritual in the RCC but also there definitely is not enough in the Protestant community, which itself is divided amongst 40,000 denominations. That’s what happens when structure is low and anyone “led by the spontaneous feeling of the spirit” can start a church movement or body split over whatever—including what color the carpet should be changed too.

What is to stop you from just attending a Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday, participating and giving something up for Lent? You could make a donation if you are financial capable of it. If you agree with the purpose and meaning behind Lent and think it would benefit you in your relationship with God, there isn’t a good reason to not participate. From the link you shared:

The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

Unless you or anyone is 100% focused on God and so mature in their walk they do this on the regular, they can benefit from participation.


I agree that only God can know what is in the heart. I assume that all churches include members that, at least occasionally, do not live according to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.
Yet, it should be the goal of services and teaching to guide the hearts and minds towards following and serving our Lord. Not by church discipline or mental violence but through a change that happens in the heart. If that does not happen, then there is a reason to ask why do we not see it happening?

No reason to downplay ordinary life, that is where we should show love in practice. Living as neighbors, students, workers, retired - we should have the attitude that we are servants of God where we are. Many just tend to forget it, or make a difference between the ‘ordinary’ Christians and those who are employed by a church or are otherwise in fulltime service. At a fundamental level, there is no such difference. A Christian living ordinary life as a good neighbor is as much a fulltime follower and servant of God than those that get their salary from a church. Or at least it should be the situation. The world is not a perfect place, not as long as we live our current life here, and Christians are not perfect models of what they should be.