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:
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?