Ash Wednesday is an ancient Christian ceremony that begins the Season of Lent.  Evidence points to the Ash Wednesday service originating in Gaul sometime in the sixth century.  The ancient service highlighted a sinner’s penitence and mortality.  The faithful understood the ashes to be an outward and public sign of penitence, and the clergy encouraged the penitent by also participating in this public ritual of humiliation.[1]  The central ritual of the service of which Ash Wednesday derives its name is the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.  The minister typically accompanies the imposition of the ashes (placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross) with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News.”[2]  The imposition of ashes points to both our mortality and acts as a visible sign of penitence.  It is noteworthy that scholars have found this Lenten practice in liturgical books dating back to the Middle Ages.  In fact, the medieval liturgical books also used the phrase from Genesis 3:19, “Remember, man, that you are dust and into dust you will return.”[3]

Though Ash Wednesday is not just about penitence and the confession of sins; it is also about the acknowledgement of our own mortality.  Byron L. Rohrig labels Ash Wednesday as “the most uncomfortable day of the year” because it quite literally “rubs our faces in our mortality.”[4]  We Christians have ashes placed on our foreheads by our ministers or priests who look upon us while saying that we are dust and we will someday return to that state of being—it can be quite disconcerting.  The minister, in turn, looks upon all those they love and serves and marks their sins and their mortality visibly with ashes.  The ritual placement of ashes on the forehead and the words accompanying the ritual make it difficult, if not impossible, to deny our mortality.  However, Rohrig acknowledges that, “Not for a moment would I attempt to banish all the discomfort.”[5]  Ash Wednesday may be uncomfortable, but the acknowledgement of human mortality is perhaps more important now than ever before given the technological advances of modern medicine that have perhaps caused people to believe that we can outwit and outlast death itself.

To call further attention to elements of mortality in Ash Wednesday services, Walter Brueggemann argues convincingly that the “dust formula” (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”) is not about curse or judgment at all and that the imposition of ashes is therefore not about sin and guilt. He does not believe that the act of ashes is about penance primarily–maintaining that the “dust formula” derives from a short, popular wisdom saying that called people to reflect upon human mortality. Using the story of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2, in which God breathed life into Adam, Brueggemann outlines that humans are “earth creatures” who are “dependent, vulnerable, and precarious, relying in each moment on the gracious gift of breath which makes human life possible.”[6]  Human life and breath itself is a generous gift from God that Christians should reflect upon on Ash Wednesday.  In the “dust formula” of Ash Wednesday, “the summons is not to acknowledge the sin, guilt, and penance, but it is a call to definitional creatureliness, which in the middle of our life, as in the middle of the narrative, we tend to forget and seek to override.”[7]  God breathed life into humanity and God knows that we will all die, and “this awareness evokes in God deep, caring concern.”[8]  Ash Wednesday provides an opportunity for Christians to reflect on our mortality and the gift of life, knowing that God will never waver in God’s unconditional love for us.

In our American culture, where we constantly strive to keep death at bay and prolong our lives, acknowledging the inevitability of our mortality as human beings is imperative.  Nevertheless, even though the acknowledgment that we will all die one day is vital, it is still difficult to fathom and symbolically represent.  As Jon M. Walton explains, “Of course we don’t like to think about the dust that we are, the sin that stands between us and God, the earthliness and humanity of our frame, our transitory dust that blows away one day.”[9]  As Rohrig explains, Ash Wednesday makes many Christians highly uncomfortable, but this is perhaps a good thing!  If we put our mortality out of our minds, we operate under the illusion that we are invincible and that we will live forever.  Humans rationally acknowledge that we are not invincible and we know that we will all die someday, but maybe an intentional acknowledgment of our mortality on Ash Wednesday will help us to better cherish our lives now and live every day as if it were a gift from God.

Ash Wednesday is such a difficult service because Christians stand in front of their ministers, congregations, and themselves to publicly acknowledge their impending deaths and the sins they have committed.  Walking up to receive the ashes on one’s forehead and leaving the church with the mark for all to see can be a public moment of utter honesty and vulnerability. The complex duality of the public and private nature of Ash Wednesday is important to emphasize.  We are not Christians in a vacuum; we are members of the body of Christ.  Yet, we are individual members of that body.  The Hebrew Bible passages used for Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:1-2; 12-17, Isaiah 58:1-12, and Psalm 51) call to mind the communal penitential acts of ancient Israel and personal penitence as well in Psalm 51.  The New Testament passages (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10) also offer a balance of communal penitence from Paul and private piety from Matthew.

Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez upholds the communal nature of Lent and Ash Wednesday specifically.  She relates that Ash Wednesday services must be clear that “this is the repentance of the whole people of God.”[10]  Too often, Lent is so individualistic that people only deal with their own personal lives.  Gonzalez maintains, “If we deal only with our own personal lives in this season, we will have lost a great opportunity to regain a strong sense of what it means to be the church, the people of God.”[11]  The acknowledgement of our mortality may be difficult on Ash Wednesday, but we do not acknowledge our mortality in isolation.  Even as the minister stands to mark the sign of the cross on each individual’s forehead, the entire congregation has come before to also be marked and the rest of the congregation will come after.  Moreover, Christians are in communion with all those who have come before them to receive the same mark on their foreheads and hear the same ritual words.  The ancient tradition of Ash Wednesday and the continuity of the “dust formula” is a powerful testament to the Christian community from time immemorial until today.[12]

It is clear that Ash Wednesday and the ritual placing of ashes on one’s forehead is a public acknowledgment of human mortality and sinfulness. Remember that the “dust formula” is primarily about mortality. Ash Wednesday can enable Christian congregations to theologically contemplate the gift of life God has given humanity and how best to use that gift.  From the readings particularly from the Hebrew Bible, the service can be an opportunity to confront our culture of American individualism by highlighting the communal nature of penitence and mortality.  We are all going to die some day. But we are part of the Communion of Saints, and that is a comfort on this holy and challenging day.

[1] United Church of Christ Book of Worship, United Church of Christ Local Church Ministries, Worship and Education Ministry Team, (Cleveland, Ohio, 1995), 178.
[2] UCC Book of Worship, 178,183.
[3] Beatrice M. Callery, “Ash Wednesday: A Celebration of Values,” in Worship 66, no 1. (January 1992): 53-66, ATLA Religion Database, 58.
[4] Byron L. Rohrig, “The Most Uncomfortable Day of the Year,” in Christian Century 104, no. 6, F 25 (1987): 180-181, ATLA Religion Database, 180, 181.
[5] Rohrig, “The Most Uncomfortable Day of the Year,” in Christian Century, ATLA Religion Database, 181.
[6] UCC Book of Worship, 183; Walter Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust,” in Journal for Preachers 14, no. 2 (Lent 1991): 3-10, ATLA Religion Database, 3-4.
[7] Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust,” in Journal for Preachers, ATLA Religion Database, 4.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Jon M. Walton, “Imposition,” in Journal for Preachers 29, no. 2 (Lent 2006): 37-39, ATLA Religion Database, 38.
[10] Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, “Preaching the Lenten Lectionary,” in Journal for Preachers 31, no 2 (Lent 2008): 3-8, ATLA Religion Database, 3.
[11] Gonzalez, “Preaching the Lenten Lectionary,” in Journal for Preachers 31, ATLA Religion Database, 4.
[12] Brueggemann, “Remember, you are dust,” in Journal for Preachers, ATLA Religion Database, 3.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.