Reflections on ashes and dust: themes from Ash Wednesday & Lent

Ash Wednesday is the starting point of Lent. We are marked with ashes as we begin the season. We go from feasting to a season of fasting, praying, and giving.

Or perhaps we can think of Lent as a season of personal training, of discipline and preparation, to return to spiritual fitness. It’s a time when, through confession, we admit and wrestle with our issues, vulnerabilities and weaknesses … and get to know ourselves better. We seek healing and balance.

This is also an opportunity to understand that we are beloved for whom we are: messy and imperfect and broken. Just as we are beloved for whom we may become. Because the gift of this season, ultimately, is grace. We can prepare, we can focus … yet we cannot earn the boundless love toward which we are reaching. It is simply offered to us, regardless of how perfect or imperfect we are. Just because.

Ashes symbolize mortality, as well as humility and contrition. The proudest members of society, in many faith traditions, don sackcloth and wear ashes as signs of humility, to express sorrow, or to demonstrate a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Ashes represent, like “dust to dust”, our elemental origins and remind us that our bodies will return to the earth. Within our faith, we also believe that while our bodies are formed from organic materials, our living selves are filled up with and energized by Breath, Wind, or Holy Spirit, which animates life and connects all of us.

Traditionally, people receive ashes today, Ash Wednesday, as a smudge or cross on the forehead. We come to this season in a messy way, wearing our imperfection on our faces. Messy, sad, sorry, tired, angry, grateful, hopeful, happy, curious … we enter into this time of preparation, on the journey toward Easter.

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