Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Death of Ash Wednesday

Good morning God,
I'm sorry God but I just can't bring myself to do it - to buy into the cult of death which periodically sickens your Church, and participate in  'ashing' with its dreadful proclamation: 'remember that you are dust and to dust you will return'

What sort of manipulative lie is THAT for the Church to be saying?

It is a complete and utter denial of the Gospel?
I am come, says Christ - that you might have LIFE in all its fullness, that your JOY might be complete - for whoever believes in me shall NOT perish but have everlasting life:

I don't care what some sixth century Pope said -
And I am happy that Christ - the second Adam (if you want to do this theologically) has 'saved me' from Adam's fate - so - whichever way you look at it:

I am not DUST - I am YOUR child God - and I refuse to let any man tell me different!

We do not have to follow the crowd - some 'traditions' are best ignored or at least transformed.

So given that I am required by my congregation to observe this offensive catholic rite I choose to change the tradition and celebrate Ash Wednesday differently:

I am happy to trace in water and oil the baptismal cross on the forehead of those who wish to mark their acceptance of the forgiveness of Christ. I am happy to reaffirm:
Remember - you are a Child of God, you always were, you always will be.

(yes, yes, I do know God that your grace is resistible, but even a 'fallen' child of yours is STILL your child, God)

And to conclude the 'rite' with a prayer adapted from the baptismal service

'Remember and take courage from the knowledge that for you 
Jesus came into the world; 
for you he lived and conquered death; 
for you he prays at God’s right hand, 
all this for you, 
before you were even born. 
You are a part of  the congregation of Christ’s flock, 
so never be ashamed to call yourself a Christian. 
Rejoice, I say again - Rejoice
for you are a child of God.   

There will be ashes present for those who wish to ash themselves: But I can no longer bring myself to perjure my faith and the light of the Gospel to satisfy the longing for some for the Gospel to focus on death not life.
Death happens. It takes less than a second to actually die.
Now hear the GOOD NEWS
We are so much more than dust - we were made by you to hold your breath, your Spirit, your life, your love - for all eternity.


  1. I have a different way of looking at this. If I didn't know that I was going to die, and if I didn't know what my beliefs were about that, I would certainly not be able to be a hospital Chaplain - not in this hospital anyway.

    Everything about our culture denies death - and I don't think that's in a "resurrection" sort of way either. It's got to the point in the US that many people are foregoing funeral services totally.

    I believe in the resurrection with all my heart (although I have no idea what it will "look like" to be resurrected). Death is that transition point. I'm ashed now (at 6:33 am my time) and I'm going to be ashing quite a number of people today. It's not about celebrating a cult of death, it's about remembering that I am mortal.

    My 2p / 2 cents

  2. Hi Pam,

    I don't deny my mortality - I can't - every morning I wake to the knowledge of incurable cancer.
    What I will no longer do however is speak the lie of death in the name of the God of life.

    I repeat - we are NOT dust. We have mortal bodies but we are not dust.
    I will die - but I will also have life.
    Thank God

  3. Angela, all I'll say is that you have called something I find to be very meaningful and helpful a denial of the Gospel and a lie. Is there room here for any other perspective? I do have a different perspective and it would seem that I don't interpret Ash Wednesday nor "ashes to ashes" at all the way you do. I guess that's my main point.

  4. Pam,
    Of course there must be other ways of seeing Ash Wednesday: I find the season of Lent meaningful and helpful, I find the call to self examination, to repentance and to renewal similarly meaningful and helpful.
    My problem is with the imposition of ashes by the 'priest' or minister and the words that accompany it.

    Theologically - I simply cannot justify it. The more I think about what it is saying - the more it seems a denial of what Christ says. I just can't see Jesus doing it, or wanting us to!

    Is there a place in our calendar to reflect on the fact that we are 'mortal', which honours the cycle of life and preaches the gospel of humility and grace - yes - of that I am certain.

    But Ash Wednesday rooted in the threat of excommunication and a history of fear based salvation is not it for me. Not without a substantial rewrite!

    Last night the opportunity to be signed with either ashes or water and oil were offered. The ashes were placed on the communion rail and those who wanted to sign themselves in ash were invited to come and do so. Many did. Others chose to come and be signed with water and oil.

    In a very deep and profound way I am sorry that I could no longer preside at this ancient rite - I really value the rich tradition of the Church. I feel like an outsider - not a comfortable place to be, but one of the things living so close to your own death gives you, is an awareness of how real life is and how empty the threat of death is in the light of the Gospel.

    I repeat - I am not dust... I am a child of God.

  5. Thank you Angie.

    I hear what you say about a history of enforced practice - but frankly didn't know about that and don't regard it as part of "my" history. I'm not sure what it means to speak of a "me" which is unrelated to my body (wouldn't this be implicit in "resurrection"?), and my body is made up of star dust - the result of the complex and violent processes turning energy into matter. I am also a part of the cylcal ecology of the earth and the me which is this body will be returned into that cycle in due course. I find dignity and purpose rather than despair in this. Even though I am star dust I have a penchant for putting myself at the centre of the universe when I am only one tiny fragment of what God has made and it does me no harm to be reminded of the humble stuff from which I am made. I can never take ashing completely seriously - it ought also to be about looking ridiculous and laughing at our own folly, a kind of festival of fools.

    Ash Wednesday speaks to me of all these things - but it says something far more: it tells me God has loved this handful of dust with an everlasting and unreasonable love, and yes I am indeed a Child of God. Just a rather dusty one!

    God bless

  6. Hi Stan,
    thank you for these comments - I agree and delight in your description of our physical composition - but is that all that you think we are? Surely the fusion of the matter and the Spirit means that we are so much more? Why not say - remember you are water and to the ocean you shall return (more accurate in terms of chemistry and physics)

    I cannot separate my nature, or deny its composition, so to speak of me as just dust is a lie, and a denial of both what and who I am created to be.

    Unless of course, I have missed the point of this salvation thing somewhere? (quite possible!)

    I agree the service can mean a hundred and one different things - which means that people are adapting it in their heads and hearts, every bit as much as I am choosing to adapt it in Word and action.

    It certainly has me thinking (see most recent blog post) about the responsibility of what we say liturgically on God's behalf.

  7. On Ash Wednesday I am reminded that God first formed Adam out of "the dust of the ground" and then "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life", causing him to "become a living soul" - I am reminded that, without God, I am nothing. By focusing on what it would mean to be a human who rejects God' invitation to be saved to eternal life, I find it easier to be thankful for the gift of grace that means we are children of God and our living soul will not perish. Man, on his own, would be nothing, a slave to death. But if we are living in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit then we are so much more than the dust. That glorious contrast is what comes home to me on Ash Wednesday, with its reminder that we must repent and turn away from the transitory things of this world. I see it as a sign of hope.

  8. @ a fragrance of God: yes hope is what it is!

    There are some serious problems if we forget our fallen nature. PArt of the whole thing about self-exminationa and confession is surely the absolution which shows how we have moved on from separation from God to being unitited with him? Ashes actually come from the Old Testament as a sign of regret thus work superbly well on Ash Wednesday. To ignore it is to ignore what God has saved you from and thus part of your identity. A real shame Ms Sheir-Jones.

    From Tim

  9. Muriel,
    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the general point you are making - especially when you say 'If we are living with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit then we are so much more than dust'. This is the main point I am trying to make - I am in Christ and I will not dismiss what Christ has won for me at such great cost - just because it happens to be a particular day in the liturgical calendar.
    The service is perhaps acceptable in the way you suggest for those who have yet to discover their true nature in God - but should a Christian, united with Christ, disown their salvation annually?
    I appreciate the many and multifarious ways in which the service CAN be understood and reinterpreted - but the fact remains that the WORDS that are used, are those used to cast Adam OUT of the garden - this exclusion, this 'death' is what Christ has saved me from - is it not?
    To put it another way - I WAS lost, but now am found, but the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy require me to deny this, they insist I AM lost - Thankfully the Church does not have the power to undo what Christ has done.

  10. Tim,
    Thank you for your comments, some of which I very much agree with. I would not want to argue about the necessity of remembering who and what we are - my concern is with the way in which we do that.

    The practice of signing the saved with ashes originates from a text in Ezekiel 9 where only those who were grieved at the state of the nation were signed - “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”9:3

    ie it was not about the individual but about the state of all God's people. Only those who grieved for OTHERS were signed and saved.

    Nothing I have suggested says that we should ignore the need for repentance - but I do believe that it is a denial of the Good News for a minister or a Priest - or anyone else for that matter - to proclaim the death of those that Christ has saved.

    I wonder, if the redeemed had the courage to live the life of the redeemed and own their life in Christ - would more people seek the salvation that God offers?

    I see no shame in refusing to submit to attempts to persuade me that I am less than God has made me - or in proclaiming I am a child of God.

    The shame comes in perpetuating a liturgy that is theologically inappropriate for Christians and by so doing denying God's work of salvation. The service was written for those who were not yet saved..

    But if you are content to be dust...

  11. The redeemed or "justified" Christian is still a sinner - although there is a difference between an unredeemed sinner and a regenerate sinner! We may know ourselves to be saved, but we are not the finished article.
    ‎"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." - Philippians 2:12
    I don't think it does us any harm to remember that the journey to "perfection" is a long and bumpy road. I thought, straight after my conversion, that the "difficult" part of the journey was over - I didn't realise that it was the easiest bit! I wouldn't want people to think that being a Christian was easy - it's the most difficult thing I have ever done, learning to be a disciple.