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A Day of Doubletakes

Guest Contributor

It happens every year it seems. Perhaps for you too? You’re running an afternoon errand and notice the merchant looks up at you quizzically. Or your colleague stops by to say hello—and hmmm, should I tell her she has a black mark on her forehead?

Ash Wednesday is a day of doubletakes. It is a day when people will enter churches worldwide to repent, to have their foreheads darkened with ashes, and to hear the sobering words, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

Then again, Ash Wednesday may not be on your radar but further proof that Christianity is a religion that heaps on guilt and responsibilities.

But what if, wherever we are on this spectrum, we thought of Ash Wednesday as, again, a day of doubletakes? What if we received it as an invitation to take a second look at our lives? What might today look like if you chose that perspective?

Perhaps a little background on Ash Wednesday is helpful. Ashes were used in biblical times in association with public repentance and mourning, and churches have carried on this practice since the fourth century. Moreover, the saying, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” echoes ancient words from God to Adam before Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden after rebelling against God.[1] Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent, a time of fasting in preparation for Easter, and takes seriously the prophet’s cry to “Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:13).

This language may seem foreign or overwrought; perhaps we can carry on our lives without all this discussion of rending and repentance. But if you were to pause today in reflection: have you wondered why you resist doing what you know is right and even want to do, like being patient and kind? We may not believe we need God to understand ourselves and our world. But why, with all our technology and education, are we still confounded by hate, evil, and our own self-centeredness even with those we love?

Real Clues

Theologian David Wells writes about this conundrum in his book Losing Our Virtue:

In the very moment when our culture is lifting moral restraints, and emptying life of its moral reality, our own nature, sometimes to our great discomfort, is declaring that it is unable to adapt to this flattened out, trivialized, morally vapid world. Our very nature is signaling the fact that it has connections with moral reality that transcend the culture.

It is in these contradictions that we find the real clues to the nature of existence.[2]

Human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong, a longing for forgiveness and justice that just will not go away. “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning in the Universe” is how CS Lewis described it in the opening episodes of his wartime broadcasts—his England was at war with Hitler and Nazism—which were later compiled into his book Mere Christianity.

Scholar Wilfred McClay also speaks about these clues and our “connections with moral reality” in an interview with The Dartmouth Apologia:

Guilt is a key aspect of what might be called our moral nervous system. It alerts us to our failures, and pushes us to make them right in some way. We should no more try to do without it than we should try to do without a nervous system because it causes us pain. That would be absurd. It’s essential that I be able to know, from the pain it causes, that putting my hand in a raging fire is not a good thing for my body.[3]

McClay goes on to explain how the conundrum of guilt opens a window to a world beyond our cultural moment:

What we are not equipped to do, though, is dealing with the consequences of guilt. This is a problem that the post-Christian pseudo-secular environment that now envelopes us in this culture is powerless to solve. We still have the reflexes of Judeo-Christian morality, but we do not have the transcendental faith that undergirded it. It’s like living in a house without a foundation.[4]

The ancient Christian story speaks uniquely to our situation, suggests McClay. This story tells us we are made in the image of God—a God who is “slow to anger and abounding in love,” proclaimed the prophet Joel. Yet we have sought to find our purpose and home elsewhere, said God through the prophet Jeremiah: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

And, as David Wells astutely observes, “Seeing ourselves as sinners is simply another way of saying that we now know the nature of our inner contradictions.”[5]

Ash Wednesday invites us to do a doubletake: to contemplate the inner contradictions of our lives and the God who made us. He is a merciful God who “shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). Ash Wednesday invites us to consider the One who stepped into our world to bear our sin upon a cross—indeed, this cross and God’s abounding love is the very focus of the Lenten season. He is the One who understands our frailties, our failures, our unforgiveness, and disordered affections. To each of us He says, “Come.” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[6]

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[1] See Genesis 3:19.

[2] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 163.

[3] Lynette Long, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt: A Q&A with Wilfred McClay,” The Dartmouth Apologia (Fall 2017). Accessed online at http://augustinecollective.org/the-strange-persistence-of/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wells, 163.

[6] Matthew 11:28-30. 

Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.