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Can ashes find a voice?



Ash Wednesday begins the Christian season of Lent, which is bound to Christian faith, but also bound to culture. It shows traces of the connections that have been made between it and the concerns and events of different times. For this reason Lent, like other large events and celebrations, may have something to say to a secular world. Ash Wednesday, for example, evokes images of human-made disasters – of war in Ukraine and Gaza, and of the Ash Wednesday bushfires, to mention only two. 

This interweaving of faith and culture marks the history of Lent, the liturgical season that Ash Wednesday introduces. In it, many strands have been woven together over centuries. At the heart of Lent is the central Christian belief that God has forgiven our sins and given us life through the death and rising of Jesus.

From the beginning of the Church, Christians expressed that conviction every time that they gathered to pray. In the second century, Christians dedicated a special feast to celebrate the dying and rising of Jesus. The Gospel accounts describe Jesus’ death and the establishment of the Eucharist as taking place during the Jewish feast of the Passover. This recalled the delivery of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, and acted as a lens to understand the significance of Jesus’ death and rising. It shaped the date of Lent and Easter.

The feast was also soon associated with fasting, a regular part of Jewish and later of Christian and Muslim life. To fast was a gesture of seriousness. It was naturally joined prayer in desperate times and also acknowledged sin and repentance.

The fast preceding the celebration of Jesus’ death and Resurrection initially varied in length. Its final length was shaped by the key stories of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: the 40 years during which the Jewish people freed from Egypt spent wandering in the desert before entering the promised land, and the 40 days during which Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert before beginning his ministry. Initially a period of five weeks from Sunday to Sunday, the fast was later expanded to 40 days, so beginning on Wednesday.

After Christianity was tolerated and spread through the Roman Empire, the celebration became more complex. The Sacrament of Confession was public and only for such serious sins that affected the community as murder, adultery and repudiating the faith. People repenting of such sins dressed in sack cloth and ashes during the Fast and were received back into the Church at the Feast. The sprinkling of ashes of Ash Wednesday recall this history which also shaped a view of Lent as primarily penitential.

As Jerusalem became a Christian centre, the ceremonies associated with the Feast followed the times and places of Jesus’ last week in the city. This elaboration was then incorporated into the celebration in other churches. Over time it was embellished with further customs such as the veiling of images. The imaginative focus on Jerusalem as the place of Jesus’ death and its later conquest by Muslim forces, too, may also have been an element in the popular prejudice and discrimination in Christian societies against Jews and Muslims.

The celebration of Lent continued to be adapted to local conditions and cultures. The English word Lent itself meant Spring, the season in which Easter fell. The experience, poetry and music of Lent and Easter in England reflected the transition from the cold and darkness of winter to the greening of early spring.


'However we ground it, an adamantine commitment to the high value of each human being and of our world is the foundation of a just world.'


If Lent has anything to say to Australia’s secular society, it will lie in its connection to the situation and needs of our world. These may lie in the seriousness that it enjoins and in the paradox embodied in the celebration of a dehumanising death, accepted in love.

Our own society, is marked by a lack of seriousness in the sense that it lacks a language for raising, considering and entering large questions of meaning and value, and suffers from a surfeit of noise and a focus on instant response. The capacity of AI to provide instant, apparently well-argued argued opinions on demand will most likely magnify the superficiality. In such a climate, the disciplines commended in Lent of reflection, searching for meaning and withholding judgment are a precious gift both personally and in society. A fast from social media and from opinion pieces like this one might well be a helpful discipline.

The paradox at the heart of Christian faith also raises questions  about human value that touch our society. These concern the value of each human being regardless of race, wealth or status. The view of a universe shaped by love and saved by Jesus’ self-sacrificing acceptance of a humiliating death assigns a high value to each human being and underlines the preciousness of our world. This value stands in contrast to treating persons as means to an end, evident in the wanton lack of respect shown in modern war, the priority given to profit over persons, and the disregard for the common good and our environment, evident in many facets of public and individual life. However we ground it, an adamantine commitment to the high value of each human being and of our world is the foundation of a just world. It is expressed in the accompaniment of prisoners and of people living with disadvantage, poverty and discrimination.

The story of Christ’s death and rising points also to the hope that love and goodness will ultimately prevail over the worst that we human beings can do to one another and to the world, our home. Such hope, however grounded, lies at the heart of an enduring and cheerful commitment.

Lent has a long history bound to a particular faith. But it speaks also to universal contemporary concerns. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Ash Wednesday, Lent



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Existing comments

What a pity that Vatican II destroyed Lent and its practices for the Catholics of this world - and in such a short time in the light of the millennial history of its cleansing, God-centred practices. Judaism, Islam and orthodox Christianity manage to maintain Lenten practice - perhaps Catholicism would do well to revert to the pre-Vat II brand of Lent.

John Frawley | 14 February 2024  

“A fast from social media and from opinion pieces like this one might well be a helpful discipline.” The text from Matthew’s Gospel I had the privilege of reading this morning concerned Jesus’ choosing of the twelve. There were a number of fishermen, a publican, a person identified as one who carried the purse, a former Zealot as well as a Cananaean plus others. There was no time off for these fellows. The twelve made lots of mistakes in the midst of revelation. Thanks for an excellent article.

Pam | 14 February 2024  

Lent and the faithful's focus on Christ at the centre of it challenge us relinquish superficiality and distraction, and to see our lives and the world as they are: at once contending - personally and collectively - with sin's burden and deadening forms, and drawing us more deeply into appreciating and responding to God's creative purpose and gift of its accomplishment in Christ, the loving Saviour of the world.
Thank you for your highly pertinent seasonal reminder, Andrew.

John RD | 17 February 2024  

Lent is about me and my sins, the things I can control. Me making it about 'our' sins, ie., about your and other people's sins (as in the Superbowl ad's exhortation to "suspend judgement" and wash the feet of a client of an abortion mill) risks God telling me to mind my own business.

If we're going to be pointing fingers, let's do it properly.

Ukraine is not 'our' (humanity's) sin, it is Putin's. (Tucker Carlson should have asked him about whether he believes in judgement.)

Gaza is Hamas'. The fault for the Crucifixion is the high priests'. Can Netanyahu do something about avoiding Gaza? Could Jesus have done something about avoiding crucifixion? Suicide, like murder, is, objectively, a major sin. The question is not whether you can but should. That's the difference between martyrdom and suicide, or self-defence (and, to a God for whom everything is in the present, the defence of an Israel of the future is as present as the defence of the Israel of now) and murder.

Lent is a time to give up many things; an adamantine commitment to straight thinking is not one of them.

s martin | 19 February 2024  

If I remember correctly, there is a connection between Lent and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, prior to commencing his earthly ministry. He was tempted by the Devil to turn stones into bread. There should be enough in this to rekindle interest, even participation in, Lent. The Orthodox rules of fasting are severe, but they can be moderated by a priest to suit individual conditions. Every element of traditional Christianity has deep spiritual significance. The West has lost this. It needs to be recovered. 'Can these bones live?'(Ezekiel 37:3)

Edward Fido | 20 February 2024