by Dan Hitchens
Wednesday, 17
February 2021
Idea
17:27

Remember that you are dust: why Ash Wednesday still resonates

As the visible world recedes, and the invisible one seems to move a little closer
by Dan Hitchens
On this day, Christians are frankly told that we’re not fooling anyone. Credit: Getty

Christmas is warm and nostalgic. Easter feels like the official beginning of spring. But what about today’s holy day — the other occasion on which even the most sporadically-observant Christians feel irresistibly drawn back to church? Ash Wednesday seems badly-designed, from a marketing perspective: you have to make time on a grey weekday, probably in February, to turn up and have cold ash smeared on your forehead by a minister who intones: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yet somehow, at least in a non-pandemic year, the churches are packed out.

One possible explanation is that, with its emphasis on self-denial, Ash Wednesday and the rest of the Lenten season fit seamlessly into a world of No Alcohol November, Veganuary, widespread gym memberships, and other popular methods of disciplining the body. And it’s true that — although the Church has reduced its minimum fasting requirements in recent decades — Lent makes more sense in a culture which is increasingly sceptical about self-gratification as a route to fulfilment.

But then, those newer traditions usually rely on strenuous efforts at self-improvement, for those who feel up for a challenge. Lent is very deliberately aimed at the pathetically weak-willed just as much as the strong. For the 4th century bishop St John Chrysostom, the season was meant to be as inclusive as possible:

“If we keep shouting and proclaiming a fast the whole year through, no one listens to what we say. But as soon as the season of Lent draws near, even the laziest of men rouses himself, even though no one counsels or advises him.”
- St John Chrysostom, Homily III

What really ensures the popularity of Ash Wednesday, I suspect, is its blunt acknowledgment of the common human predicament. How much time we all spend trying to prove our competence and confidence. On this day, Christians are frankly told that we’re not fooling anyone. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” There’s a unique solidarity in queueing up to hear those words.

Sometimes, too, Ash Wednesday offers a heightened consciousness of spiritual realities. The event which Lent commemorates, Christ’s 40 days in the desert and his temptation by Satan, is one of the harder Gospel passages to visualise or get your head round. But on this day, it makes a kind of intuitive sense, as the visible world recedes, and the invisible one seems to move a little closer. Or is that the hunger talking?

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
8 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alison Houston
Alison Houston
1 year ago

There were 7 of us, in Selby Abbey, this evening.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

There were 16 of us on Zoom in deepest Shropshire. Did miss the ash however.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago

Why the stars in hell?

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago

I’m sorry that this post has not been given greater exposure because it is freighted with very profound issues of human mortality, sin, redemption, judgement, heaven and hell.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

I have just discovered that by upticking your comment, rather than showing as an uptick it has taken away the downtick someone else gave you, so you are back to zero ! Seems a bit daft.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

You may have noticed that your reply to me in connection with the article on the Church being woke was removed along with some replies I made to others. I can’t remember what the question was now but I know it was very perceptive and I wanted to reply.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

Yes I had noticed, I think all the comments made within approximately 24 hours prior to the changeover disappeared, unfortunately. I agree it was an interesting thread.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
1 year ago

The statement that ye are dust is deeply depressing. It effectively reduces human existence on this planet to the mortal meat-body only.
Always remember that your inherent heart-disposition wants and needs Infinite, Absolute, True, Eternal Happiness now, now and now, and not in some imagined other place (heaven) away from here after your present-time incarnation body inevitably dies.
Always remember that whatever does or does not arise you are Consciousness Itself, or that your Real True and Eternal condition now, and in every moment of this incarnation and all future incarnations is Sat-Chit-Ananda ( Being, Consciousness and Love-Bliss)
When “I” Realize the Transcendental Idenity, then fear leaves the body-mind, and Humor is restored.
When “I” Realize the Transcendental Identity of every one that is loved and every thing that is desired, then sorrow leaves the body-mind, and Happiness is restored.
When “I” Realize the Transcendental Condition of all phenomena, all experiences, and all dimensions or worlds in the Realm of Nature, then anger leaves the body-mind, and Love is restored.
All beings (including the non-humans) require Divine Compassion, Love, and Blessing, the thread of Communion with the Living Divine Reality made certain and true and directly experienced. All.
There is no truly human life without such Divine-Communion, or the submission/surrender of the entire conscious and functional being to the Absolute Divine Reality within which it appears, on which it depends completely, even for the next breathe. Without such Divine Communion the fear saturated individual is simply a functional entity living a mostly unconscious adventure of pre-patterned functional relations. There is no Sacred or Divine Plane to his or her awareness.