The Petersen Page

The Meaning of Ash Wednesday
February 7, 2008, 3:04 am
Filed under: Articles


The meaning of Ash Wednesday

Friday, March 9, 2001


The essential truth, and gift, of Ash Wednesday is its call to come to terms with ourselves before God. Ash Wednesday says what so much of modern culture denies, namely that we human beings are forever deceiving and justifying ourselves.

For those familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs, Ash Wednesday is a like a giant, pull-out-all-the stops Step Four. We “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Ash Wednesday is not only a day for searching self-scrutiny on the part of individuals, but for us as a community of people. What we have most in common as human beings is our sin, our failure to be who we have been made to be and called to be. What we have most in common is our need for mercy.

Of course, a lot of people don’t agree with this. Many think that our problem is insufficient self-esteem. We need to think more highly of ourselves, love ourselves more. Personally, I think we have gone about as far down that road as we can go. I’m in favor of thinking less of ourselves. Oh sure, that too can be overdone. 

On Ash Wednesday, a pretty convincing call to attention was sounded at around 11 a.m. in the Pacific Northwest. When we clambered out from under our desks and door frames, one clear lesson was that we were all in this one together. The earthquake didn’t single out one racial, ethnic, gender, age, economic, ideological or occupational group. No, it was an equal opportunity event. A reminder that we’re all in this together, and that no one gets to point the finger or to distance themselves and say, “That’s about her, not me; about them, not us.”

Over the years I have noticed a university professor who always makes it to Ash Wednesday services every year, even though her Sunday attendance is sporadic. Finally, I asked her, “I see you really make a point of getting to Ash Wednesday. What’s the deal?”

“It’s the one day of the year,” she said, “when we really get it right, when we tell the truth, a truth that’s not told at the university. We’re a mess. We need help. If it’s all up to us, we’re doomed.”

Of course, confession, apology and remorse are possible and make sense only when we believe it is not all up to us.


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