Ash Wednesday Reflections
“For through the law, I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:19-20)
Death. It’s not something we like to talk about. Despite being a reality we each will face one day, we live in denial of death. We imagine that somehow we can cheat it. Avoid it. And so, we choose not to speak of death until that inevitable moment comes when we are marked by its sting—the grief of loss—and we are forced to walk through the shadow of its valley.
An invitation to a different orientation exists. We need not wait for death to make the first move. There is another way—the way of the Cross. The way of the Cross, first walked by Jesus, confronts death rather than looking away from it. Ash Wednesday is the first step in taking this alternative road—of soberly staring into the abyss and pressing into, rather than away from, our mortality.
Ashes are all that remains when something has been consumed by fire. They symbolize what our visible humanity is ultimately reduced to when we become deceased—when the light within goes out and we are swallowed up by death’s shroud. Apart from the animating breath of the Divine which gives us life, all we are, as the song says, is dust in the wind. On Ash Wednesday, it long has been a tradition in the Church to acknowledge this reality, which can be denied but not avoided, through the imposition of ashes.
Biblically, covering oneself with ashes generally served as a sign of mourning. One might be grieving over the suffering or passing of a loved one. For another, bearing ashes might serve as a form of protest—a lament against this world not being the way it's supposed to be. Both mourning and protest come together on Ash Wednesday. As the pain we repeatedly bear and the death we inevitably face are confronted not in fear but in faith through ashes shaped in the sign of the Cross.
Ash Wednesday is the remembrance of our beginnings as well as what can become our destiny. We need not go gently into that good night. But we can possess more than rage against the dying of the light. For there is a Light that the darkness cannot overcome. In the resurrection of Christ, we receive a victory that eclipses death’s shadow with the eternal dawn of renewed possibility. Possibility not just when our bodies expire but when our dreams appear to die. When failure tempts us to believe we’re finished. When loss threatens to leave us buried in grief.
This is the kind of faith the apostle Paul invokes to a community in Galatia—a community struggling to save itself. Faith that rises from the ashes of striving to be perfect and instead is willing to drop its guard, its pretense, and be honest about our mutual vulnerability and flaws. Faith that endures only as we die to ourselves—our need to be right, our refusal to admit when we’re wrong, and our resistance to forgive as we have been forgiven. Faith that is not a possession but a gift, a gift given to us by a love that is willing to be forsaken in order to prove that it is stronger than death. The divine love of Christ that breathes, forms, and shapes new possibilities from the ashes of our lives.
Words: Chris Tweitmann
Photography: David Dvořáček, Susan Wilkinson, and Tomasz Filipek