Ch. 18: Ash Wednesday and the Voices of Lent

by Andrea Tisher

Today we enter into the season of Lent (and so skip ahead to chapter 18). Ash Wednesday stands as a gateway into the season that calls us to follow Jesus, and to follow Jesus with all His other followers. It calls us back to what is important, refocuses our attention on a God that demonstrates His glory though suffering, and refutes the lie that we are alone.

Ash Wednesday is a day for “accepting what we have allowed ourselves to become and beginning to be all the rest of what we are meant to be.” (118)

And how does Ash Wednesday accomplish this? By speaking a very strange set of words over us.

“Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”

What a bizarre thing to say to someone. But how freeing. You don’t have to have it all together. (You are dust.) But you do have this life to spend well, so why are we spending so much time and energy on _____? (And to dust you shall return.)

The first time that I was privileged to be part of a service where we practiced the Imposition of Ashes (was I an Impositor?) it was absolutely striking and unforgettable to say these words to each of the congregants as they came to the front. It was hard to say. I kept thinking, “I’m really saying, ‘You’re going to die’ … how is that helpful?” But as the experience continued I started to see the gift it was. Each one of these people were following Jesus in their own imperfect ways, constantly aware that they should “do it better” and here I was saying,

“It’s okay. You’re going to die. You’re not perfect. You don’t have numerous lifetimes to perfect this, you just have your one precious life. So if you’re expecting too much of yourself, let’s be a little more realistic. And if you’re not expecting anything, remember that you have a life to spend… and so let’s choose wisely.”

And so Ash Wednesday sends out the call to pay particular attention during Lent. Particular attention to the way we’re spending our lives. Particular attention to the Word of God. Particular attention to the journey of Jesus toward the cross. Particular attention to our souls and to being human. Chittister writes:

Ash Wednesday issues a challenge “to become fully alive, fully human rather than simply, grossly, abysmally, self-centeredly human.” (119)

And then Lent gives us the chance to remember who we are – who we are meant to be – and where we have come from. Lent’s reputation about being sad and sorrowful is only half true. It is also all about newness and a call to fully human living. As we walk into the season, may we embrace this call with our whole hearts.

What is Lent looking like for you this year? Are you preparing yourself or others for baptism? Are you fasting or instensifying a discipline? If you’re looking for ideas, I thought this was a fabulous list.

And as strange as it sounds, I hope someone blesses you today by reminding you that you’re going to die…


  1. Thank you for your excellent explanation of Lent…. has given me much to ponder. The palm leaves used on “Palm Sunday” in one church I attended * were collected and burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday. What wonderful teaching in that practice.

    *maybe that happens in all churches who use actual palm leaves on Palm Sunday… of that I am not sure


  2. I’m even newer to Ash Wednesday liturgy than Andrea is; tonight was my first ever service on this particular day. Coming home with my mortality freshly noted, my forehead freshly daubed, and my heart freshly warmed, I’ll leave any responses to Joan Chittister’s rich words (this is one of her best chapters so far, I think) for another day.

    Right now I need to express something of the strange joy we at Holy Trinity found amid this murky, drizzly English night. Our service shone forth the corporate nature of our Lenten repentance, our journey with Christ, our need of grace as one pilgrim body travelling to one heavenly Jerusalem in company with our one head, Lord and Saviour.

    Seeing our vicar be the first to receive the ashes (if not the sackcloth) marked us as a tribe ‘led’ by one who himself knows his sin, who is not ‘qualified’ by any kind of perfection.

    Seeing each other looking rather foolish, our physical facades were revealed ridiculous – just as our confessions revealed our spiritual facades and unholy aspirations yet more ridiculous. We let our image drop – and hugged each other with wishes of ‘peace’ even more fervently for it. It’s easier to love people who’ve stopped pretending: Amen, let it be so with me henceforth.

    Lining up to receive communion from ash-smudged distributors made it clear what murky channels grace deigns to come through. This holy host and his holy feast are potent enough, it appeared, to reach us however, to feed us, lift us, cleanse us, even us. Even us with our silly sin-stained image-of-God.

    And yes, it was a blessing to hear not just mine, but also my new family’s deaths proclaimed. We’re dust, but thank God, we’re dust together.

    Amen, hallelujah.


  3. Stacey…I found your blog through Regent’s post and am very happy to have found you. Your thoughts on Lent were a great way to begin the season for me. I’ve never practiced Lent in a formal way, but am trying this year to pay more attention. Thank you for your thoughts!


    1. Hi Sarah. Welcome to Thinking Worship! I’m glad you enjoyed the post on Ash Wednesday – it was actually written by a guest blogger: Andrea Tisher. I just left a comment on your own blog to let you know. :) I also left a link to Andrea’s website, in case you wanted to read more of her thoughts. The whole Christian calendar is rather new to me as well – at least the personal side of it is. This year of journeying deeper into the conscious practice of the Christian life through seasons of feasting and fasting has been an exciting journey! You’re welcome to continue the conversation here – there will be a few more posts on Lent in the next couple of weeks: one by Ian Walden, and one by myself – before we dive into Holy Week.


      1. Excellent. I’m trying to not over indulge in reading all the things out there on Lent! I’ve bookmarked a few I want to return to and park and think…I’ll look forward to the other posts here.


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