E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.
A Day for Humility
We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?
~Traditional Ash Wednesday Blessing
To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.
We each live subject to the human constraints of death, weakness, sin, shame, and pain. The ashes remind us that we are but fleeting flowers in a field, here today and gone tomorrow. The rest of the year we may be tempted to mask, hide, deny, or run away from our constraints. Perhaps, we think, we can undo our weakness. Or maybe we can live only out of our strengths, thus avoiding the need to display our weaknesses before others.
Or worse, perhaps we deny our constrictions by making them seem inconsequential compared to the apparent weakness of our neighbors. Maybe we think to ourselves, Well, they’re lazy because they’re on Medicaid. Whereas at least we work to earn our benefits. Perhaps we think their worldview is contemptible, while our own captures the whole of global complexity. Or maybe we think their theology is flawed or unrefined, while our own derives from the very mouth of God. But in each case, we see only through our limited perspective.
Ash Wednesday compels us to look all of this square in the face. It is a public rehearsal of Jesus’ parable:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Humility Leads to Unity
This moment of dust serves two crucial purposes in the journey of a disciple. It is a reminder that no matter how we change and grow, we are altogether different from the one we worship. It is also a reminder that no matter how pure we may think ourselves, we are altogether the same as every human around us: dust.
The ash should reorient our approach to the greatest commandments: We love God not out of equality but out of grace. If we occupy a space at God’s side, it is not because we’ve climbed there; it is because he’s stooped to be near us. Meanwhile, we love others not paternalistically but side-by-side in the earth’s ash. If our theology is truer than that of our brothers and sisters, it has not a whit to do with us.
It is this lesson about our proper place that makes Ash Wednesday the perfect day to seek Christian unity. Too often we live in our doctrinal bubbles, presuming that the Holy Spirit has given our tribe an inside knowledge into the fullness of God’s character. We find assurance in the ironclad boundaries of our statements of faith. We hold fast to the blogs that proudly bolster our theological beliefs. And we think, How could anyone believe anything else?
But the ash upon your head tells a different story. As logical as your statement of faith may be, it does not increase the limits of your human frailty. You cannot capture the fullness of God. The fullness of God is revealed in Christ and in Christ alone. All articulations fall short because they are articulated by mere dust. We see now through a dark glass, and we do well to remember it. The future of Christianity depends upon it.
As CT has noted in several recent articles, evangelicalism is undergoing change. While no one knows what comes next, I fear we will find ourselves only more divided by our claims of doctrinal superiority. We don’t like that word, doctrinal, anymore, but all that threatens to deepen the old divides is the same as its ever been. Every generation dupes itself into thinking that its own timely changes are pure and new. But there is nothing new under the sun. Division comes from pride, and unity will always come from humility.
Ash Wednesday itself is old, but the tradition of humility signified by ash goes back to the days of the prophets. When we adorn ourselves with the mark of our humility, we join with Mordecai, who wore ashes while appealing to God to save the Jews; with Job, who wore ashes while submitting in smallness to the great Creator; with Daniel, who wore ashes while pleading in captivity; and with all the nameless saints who have swiped their foreheads symbolically over the millennia. When faced with cultural challenges and shattering circumstances, the saints of the past survived best when they emulated the self-lowering example of Christ. So too for us in these days of uncertainty.
For my friends and me, Ash Wednesday serves as a moment to detox from the machinations of cultural chaos. It is a launching point for cooperation throughout the year. Lowering our heads and admitting our limits in February tends to fix our posture toward one another. We can switch pulpits, care for widows and orphans together, raise money together, encourage local nonprofits together. We cooperate not because we’re great, but because we’ve been reminded we’re not. We have limits—sharp, dusty limits. And if we are dust, we might as well be so together.