Ash Wednesday and the Value of Tradition

painted cross on iron grate

Today marks the beginning of the forty-day Christian liturgical season known as Lent, a time of reflection, contemplation, and perhaps even sacrifice in preparation for the coming of the Holy Week that culminates in the celebration of Christ’s Easter resurrection. Throughout the world on Wednesday, Christians from across denominations and traditions will make themselves known through the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, small but conspicuous statements about their spiritual identities and, I suspect, their most pressing hopes.

We know from Tolkien that not all who wander are lost. The inverse, of course, is also true. Not all who find themselves moved to religious ritual are finished seeking. Most aren’t, even as many of us wander in and through various religious orbits, spiritual practices, and times of communion and estrangement from God and from each other. Those who will bear the mark of Christ’s cross on Ash Wednesday do so for different, even disparate reasons. Some will wear it as a proud (and I don’t mean prideful) badge, a faithful, even kerygmatic public statement. Some  receive the ashes and the Wednesday blessing because of the long pull of tradition. Others are compelled to it by a desire for that same pull and the hope that God might meet us in it. Not all, and perhaps not even many, who wander are lost. Not all who wear ashes are cradle Christians or Christian converts. Not all who take pause on Ash Wednesday will go on to observe a Christian Lent. Not all who hope for Easter’s promise necessarily believe it. Not all who want to feel able. But I do believe, somehow, that all who seek God will find.

I’ve never been much of an Ash-wearer, but I became one last year when confronted with the thousands-fold witness of marked heads on the subway. It was not so much the numbers themselves, but the odd occurrences: every other person in the long corridors beneath Time Square, every fourth or fifth on the 3, a small group walking towards me as I surfaced to street level. If a sacrament is, as theologians are fond of saying, a visible sign of an invisible truth, these pilgrims were sacraments for me. Their willingness to be marked as believers or seekers, and, in either case,  people needing something, made me willing, too. Going up the wrong flight of stairs at 14th Street Station and hitting the street at the Church of the Village meant I was greeted with a sign proclaiming Imposition. So then there I was, and there, it seemed, was God. I received ashes and a blessing, a charge to repent, believe, and live. In short, I was moved, felt something, lost my bearings. I didn’t know which way to walk when I came back out to the street. I believe I had a profound, even mystical experience, not because I succumbed to a ritual I’d never valued, but because I believe God uses what God can to meet us where we are. For me, a provisional-at-best Christian, a seminary grad burned out on church and religion, it was the totally new experience of ashes, of anointing prayer and blessing. It was whatever God said to my spirit while the bishop spoke to me.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself much more interested in the mystical Christian traditions than ever before, and needing them. I’ve felt more at home around ritual and process so long as I approach them from humility and from the recognition that God is always bigger than the things we do and that when God meets us in those things, it’s because God is God, not because we’ve done religious work God deems cosmically essential.  But it’s also true that our drive to meet God in places carved out by tradition echos something cosmically essential: an understanding that we want and need the mystical, the holy; a hope that God will meet us wherever it is we seek to find.

This Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that the power of Christian ritual has absolutely nothing to do with it being set down by patriarchs with apostolic authority or some other contrived historiography that super-values the existential (and perhaps compulsive) needs of long-dead saints.  For me, our rituals, like our stories, are opportunities to embrace the basic Christian claim: the in-breaking of God at every turn, the furious longing on God’s part for time and eternity with us.

15 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday and the Value of Tradition

  1. Good post. I grew up Catholic. Ash Wednesday was never my favorite (I much preferred St. Blaise Day’s candles-to-the-neck ritual), but I always got into the Lenten tradition of depriving yourself of a bad habit. Even now that I no longer identify with the Church, I still think the tradition is admirable.

  2. I’ve always been challenged by traditions like ash weds simply b/c I am always saddened at the number of people who will bear such symbols but in the balance of their lives forget what Christ commands: love God in all you do and love others as you love yourself. Instead of a symbol on my forehead, I try to live my life as a symbol of God’s call to love. I fail miserably some days, succeed on a few and fall somewhere in the middle on most. Still, I think this is a life according to God’s calling. It’s perhaps the best way I know how to show that God is Still Speaking.

  3. “I believe God uses what God can to meet us where we are” – this is, perhaps, the most beautiful line of your post. Since God is so far beyond anything we can understand, He comes down to our level to meet with us, no matter the circumstance.

    I have extremely strong Christian beliefs and follow them, but do not necessarily observe the rituals behind Christianity. I’ve always been one who views my Christian walk as one built on relationship instead of ritual or even religion. Through your post, however, I have come to appreciate Ash Wednesday just a little more, and the true nature behind its purpose.

    Thanks for the beautiful post.

  4. Great post. Not an easy subject when there is much religious diversity ….and I mean among Christians :) but you did a great job.
    These religious rituals have true meaning–they are not just things we do. In performing these rituals and studying their meanings, it helps to bring us closer to God and understand what He wants from us.
    Thanks for shedding light on (as one of my teen-aged daughter’s friends put it) those crazy people with the black mark on their heads.

    1. Thank you, Savvy, for your kind words and insights. You’re right about the diversity thing. Let me say, too, (and this is for all of you): I’m really, really fortunate that such thoughtful people are commenting on posts like these. Thank you!

  5. Good post, Chris. Very thought provoking. I was brought up in a Roman Catholic environment with all the incense and Latin and mysticism that it all is to a kid. I kicked the jones in my teens and found my own way back to a belief system which echoes your line about God finding us wherever he can/where we are. Still working on it – but there are no closed doors. Right ?

  6. Maybe your most meaningful post to me to date (and I’m a big baseball fan, so that’s saying something). I’ve been struggling recently with my religious identity. I’ve felt lax as a Christian in college, and it’s the symbolic things such as Ash Wednesday that re-light something inside me. Yet, it is frustrating being in a college environment at a state school that scoffs at organized religion, calling it a joke or a hierarchy of money-hungry liars. As a Christian, I know this isn’t true, yet as a libertarian I’ll never push my beliefs on somebody else or downplay anybody else’s ideas. I simply state my side of the case, get called ridiculous, and move on with my day. It was incredibly refreshing to see that there are still people in the world that find tradition a strong spiritual bond, rather than “some thing some guy a long time ago thought of to drag people to church to take their money”.

    This was truly an inspiring piece, Cocca. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts, Eric, and for being so open. May you be strengthened as you continue to develop your spiritual identity, really, your walk with God, where you are and where you’re heading next. And I suppose I’d offer a companion prayer for all of us, that being that we might all get disrupted when we need disruption, and that we may come through such times only to see a fuller, more life-giving faith being sewn and grown in us.

      many blessings,


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