Rethinking Ash Wednesday

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).


Anonymous said…
“Guilty” is not what I feel. Although I cannot be responsible for what was wrong in the world before I became old enough to do anything about it, at my present age I do feel intermittent responsibility for the manifold and profound injustices of the world. I do confess that often I ignore those injustices because I either benefit from them personally or am too lazy to confront them. Ash Wednesday serves us well if it reminds us of corporate guilt, the things left undone – or, as one confessional prayer put it, “the evil done on our behalf”. In my mind, failure to address these injustices replaces the historical concept of original sin.
Maybe there are additional moments of individual culpability (the “things done”) that ride on top of that… more for some people, less for others. If we have arrived at the point where few people commit direct, explicit sin in the classical sense, then great… but there is plenty of other bad stuff to address.
George Clifford said…
Responsibility and guilt are different. Personal culpability is important when a person is directly responsible for causing evil. But much of the evil in the world – and, as you observe, there is lots of it – is not directly attributable to any person or small group.
Jay Croft said…
I do have problems with the BCP service, especially Psalm 51. My mother was legally married when she conceived me!

Yet the Ash Wednesday service should not be abandoned. It serves a purpose, as does Good Friday. Not many people participate in either, but it's there, and is an essential part of the Church Year.

As for glitter on the ashes, I think it's silly, but then I'm an Old Curmudgeon.
George Clifford said…
I am not proposing that we eliminate either Ash Wednesday or Good Friday from the liturgical cycle. What I am proposing is an alternative interpretation to make those days more meaningful for people who do not live with guilt at the center of their spiritual and theological lives.

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