In this post, I suggest a more modern interpretation of why Christians continue to impose ashes. (My 2016 Ethical Musings post Ash Wednesday sketched the traditional understandings of the annual Christian practice of imposing ashes.)
Christianity needs to rethink Ash Wednesday. Few twenty-first Christians in the developed world feel very guilty, especially compared to Christians during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, guilt is a poor motivator for changing behavior. Finally, increasing numbers of Christians reject not only the theological doctrine of original sin but also all of the several interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion that emphasize his death as an essential requirement for God forgiving human sin. Hence, a majority of Christians have voted with their feet, absenting themselves from Ash Wednesday observances, tacitly believing the observances generally meaningless and irrelevant.
Rethinking Ash Wednesday begins by recognizing that the words used to impose ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – has two widely ignored meanings vitally relevant to contemporary life.
First, being dust emphasizes that humans are physical beings. Our spiritual dimension has no independent existence. Instead, the human spirit consists of those physical attributes that are quintessentially and uniquely (only in degree) human.
Second, because humans are dust, humans are inherently integral elements of God’s glorious creation. Therefore, we should celebrate rather than bemoan or lament human life and the human condition. Consequently, adding glitter to the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday is a very appropriate act (though I’ve not yet seen this interpretation of that act).