Ash Wednesday: A Time to Awaken Our Souls

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Christians all over the world today will receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in observation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  But what does this ancient practice exactly mean  for us as Christians in a post-modern world? Why do we need ashy smudges above our eyebrows? Why does Lent begin this way, and does our observance of the season mean we have to give up chocolate or caffeine or The Celebrity Apprentice for 40 days until Easter?

In the PC(USA) the season of Lent—a period of 40 days—is recognized as  a time of prayer, fasting, self-examination and service that helps us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning.  As Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, associate professor of theology at Columbia Seminary, puts it:

“Presbyterians do not enter this period of fasting and prayer to attract God’s attention or to be noticed by other people. Lent is a way of paying attention to our own lives. We receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads to focus our attention on who we really are…Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent provide a time to focus our attention on the mystery at the heart of the Christian life: that through the death of Jesus Christ, we have entered new life…The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines—fasting, prayer, service—in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him.”

In other words, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are not about us cutting out junk food or countless hours of web & tube surfing. (Honestly, giving up those things is just a pious–albeit unintentional–way to attract the attention of God and others. And avoiding M&Ms doesn’t bring us closer to God, deepen our faith or help us grow as disciples). Ash Wednesday and Lent is actually an incredibly profound opportunity to practice humility and compassion with and toward others on our faith journeys, all the while reflecting on Jesus’ ministry and walk toward the cross in Jerusalem.

It is a chance to take on something new: learning a new spiritual practice; adopting non-judgmental attitude; widening a compassionate heart, volunteering with a non-profit organization that seeks justice and empowerment for the poor and oppressed; spending more time with family; reconciling a broken relationship; speaking out against the bullying of LGBT youth; becoming a better steward of God’s creation, etc. It is a time in which we invest our love and our life into a different way of living–

a type of living that is counter to the self-centered, consumerist society that we live in…

a type  of living that faithfully and selflessly seeks to build a community where all are welcome in unconditional love and mercy.

a type of living that believes in God’s promise to awake our souls (our inmost being) to the reality of God’s kingdom and the hope of a another world that is already/not yet…

Awake My Soul–Mumford & Sons (lyrics)

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show

Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I’ll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep, totally free
Har har, har har, har har, har har

Awake my soul
Awake my soul

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
Har har, har har, har har, har har

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker
You were made to meet your maker

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5 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday: A Time to Awaken Our Souls”

  1. Thanks for this Andy…I will disagree with some of this point:
    In other words, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are not about us cutting out junk food or countless hours of web & tube surfing. (Honestly, giving up those things is just a pious–albeit unintentional–way to attract the attention of God and others. And avoiding M&Ms doesn’t bring us closer to God, deepen our faith or help us grow as disciples).

    Those things CAN deepen our faith, etc. depending on your intentions. Let’s say you usually get M & M’s from the office vending machine most afternoons. You give them up for Lent-a form of fasting. Each afternoon when you break your normal habit, you can turn your attention to God and remember what Lent is about. If you cut out Facebook and use the extra time for prayer or Bible reading or writing a card to someone who needs to know they’re not alone, that would be a good discipline.

    But that doesn’t always happen-don’t know if it happens often. I do love Lent..

    1. Thanks Lindsey, you raise a great point. You’re right, those things can deepen faith depending on intention but it’s been my experience that often the intention is rooted the cultural assumption that Lent is solely about giving up things to become closer to God, and also guided by a good amount of guilt as a result of a theological misunderstanding of Lent by Protestants, particularly Presbyterians.

      If someone is going to give up a bad habit or vice then an intentionally different action of taking on something new has to follow. Giving up M&Ms is pointless if you’re not substituting a different action in its place, i.e. taking the $ you used to spend on M&Ms and giving to a non-profit or using the time on Facebook to be in prayer/write a card/take a walk/read scripture, etc.

      Although there are exceptions, I was aiming my comments at the majority of Presbyterians who tend to give up things just for the sake of “giving up things because it’s Lent” and who also try to garner attention and approval for their attempt/success/failure to give up the vice for Lent. While it’s unintentional and not a deliberately pious act, it is modern day example of Matthew 6:1-18. And it seems the Church has failed at teaching people that they have to give up certain things to prove their worthiness or to receive God’s love. For Presbyterians, Lent should be viewed and practiced in the way Martha Moore-Keish describes.

      1. Unless of course you’re giving up and just making space. most of us are so over-filled that we could use some fasting practices. How else can we counter the consumer culture unless we refuse to participate in some part of it–either through consumption OR production?

      2. I agree with you completely. You can count me in that camp.

        I just think there are a lot of Christians and Presbyterians who make it more of a triviality and then as soon as Lent is over, they go right back to eating chocolate or what have you. I hear folks make statements about what they’re giving up as if people should have pity on them, thus drawing attention to themselves like “I’m giving up M&Ms for Lent” So what. That doesn’t make you a better follower of Christ. Same as people who say “I go to church every Sunday” So?

        It’s not about getting the attention of God or others. If you’re going to fast, just fast. Why make a pronouncement about how you’re giving up beer or soda or candy and whine about how you’re not sure you’re going to get through it. The point is missed if that is all it is for most folks.

        And the fasting should be coupled with doing/serving, i.e. deciding to fast from M&Ms or downloading iTunes or beer, etc. and using the money to spend on organizations that lift up the poor or support non-violent initiatives or help provide medicine to AIDS patients in Africa or funds musical instruments for low income schools, etc. Too often, I see and hear people simply give up soda and that’s it. No prayer, no discernment about the road to the cross, a commitment to serving others. I truly think discipleship is more than just giving up candy for a month.

        For me, it’s the “me, me, me” and piety of it that is irksome and ultimately misleads people from a deeper connection with the season. Plus it’s theologically problematic…just sayin 🙂

      3. I wonder if my experience in the heavily Catholic upper midwest makes a difference in how I experience this. Because I don’t hear any Presbyterians self-righteously giving things up for Lent. Instead I get the opposite–self-righteously taking things on because We Do Things To Make The World Better while “those Catholics” waste time giving up chocolate.

        I guess I just want to encourage us to contemplate whether it might be time to stop packing our lives so full of DOING…it’s my experience that we are in serious danger of forgetting that it’s God who saves the world, and in danger of neglecting what should be our primary relationship in favor of one more volunteer activity. Which could also account for the high levels of burnout we’re experiencing. I wonder if the revival the church is seeking (revival is an imperfect word, because I don’t mean “going back” but more like renewal or rejuvenating or something) will be found in doing more volunteer hours, or in spending time at the well so we are filled in order to fill others?

        After all, Jesus expected his followers to fast, and he went away to pray even when there was work to do. The prophets are pretty evenly matched on “pay attention to God” and “do good works.” If we think we’re earning anything by either our fasting or our works, we’re obviously misguided. But how are we supposed to figure that out, or do anything for that matter, when we’re so busy we don’t take time to sit in prayer or examine ourselves into repentance?

        And then this comment got super long, so I morphed it into a post on my blog. 🙂

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