Ash Wednesday Motivation

Morning Prayer this morning in the Liturgy of the Hours contained a particularly beautiful prayer for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent:

Grant, O Lord,that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, for ever and ever.– Amen.

I loved the prayer, because it has the theme of spiritual warfare, but is clear that this is a war of love and self-giving, and fought with weapons like self-restraint.


  1. What do you think of being seen with your ashes in public? Is that the kind of public show of self-aggrandizement that today’s gospel advises against?

  2. The reason that we read that Gospel on Ash Wednesday is to make sure that’s not how we treat it.

    The ashes are a sign of our sinfulness, so it strikes me as bizarre that people would wear them arrogantly. I don’t doubt that it happens, but if we really understand why we’re wearing ashes publicly, it’s to let everyone know that we’re fallen sinners. As the priest says when he applies the ashes, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”



  3. I too struggled with the apparent dichotomy between the Gospel and the distribution of ashes which follows, but then I reasoned, the Gospel doesn’t just apply to today but all the time, and particularly throughout Lent. We only wear them one day out of forty, and it’s a nice way of symbolising the Old Testament’s sackcloth and ashes (Ash Wednesday) followed by Christ’s fulfillment of it (every other day in Lent).

    Also, most of the time the ashes have gone by the time Mass is over! (Especially if you tend to pray with your head in your hands.)

  4. It’s actually quite humbling to wear ones ash head openly. It’s rather the opposite of parading ones spirituality about but imposes an identification with mortifying self and often creates opportunities to share the faith and the meaning of Lent which is often a very humbling place to be in.

    My guess is the self would really rather not be so identified with such a counter cultural symbol, a so clearly Christian symbol but on Ash Wednesday that self must restrain itself and be willing to let Jesus Christ be so clearly Lord.

    For better of worse my own Smudge Day Lent Head reflection is here

  5. I would like to address these concerns from the perspective of the text. I grew up in a Protestant denomination that took the matthew 6:1-18 passage literally. I do not believe that Jesus wanted us to literally pray in a closet or literally give so our left arm does know what the right is doing. I say that because we know that it is impossible to move one arm without the other one knowing. If Jesus was not giving us a legal code, then he might have been making a lesson for us. What is the point of the lesson then?

    The very first verse of this passage is a great example of the whole passage. Matthew 6:1 states, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (NIV translation) I have come to understand much of this verse and pericope to hang on a key phrase from this verse, and that key phrase is “to be seen by them.” Jesus says this phrase (or a slight variation of it) four times in this pericope. “To be seen by others” is true motivation of the hypocrites in this passage. The motive of the church for Ash Wednesday is not “to be seen by others” but rather to come to Christ with a repentant heart. Joe is absolutely right about the reason for Ash Wednesday (please read his comment above). When we understand the motivation of the church and the meaning of the gospel reading, then we can clearly see that they are not opposition or contradiction. This is why I, as a Protestant, can practice such a “Catholic” thing as Ash Wednesday. The reality is that it is a Christian thing, but sadly many
    Protest-ants have turned their back to the history of the Christian movement. Grace and Peace to you all!

  6. I was a bit concerned about wearing my ashes into my favorite coffee shop a block away from the Church yesterday PM. However, I entered the shop with 5 others straight from getting smudged.

    I don’t worry about the apparent contradiction. 1) they were off quickly, 2) it’s just 1 day out of 365, 3) We read that reading to prepare for the whole season, 4) it reminds you that just getting the ashes isn’t the point- unlike the Methodist drive through ash Wednesday service.

  7. Dear Rev Dark Hans (interesting name by the way) Ash Wednesday is, to borrow your terms, a Christian thing specifically because it is a Catholic thing because Catholics are Christians because Christianity is at its everlasting base Catholic. It is wonderful that you observe the ancient practices of the Church given by Christ to/through the Apostles, the one Church to which you are joined by your (I presume Trinitarian) baptism, if imperfectly joined to Her in that you are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.

    May this former Protestant minister recommend to you a wonderful book that addresses this truth, written by a former Lutheran minister and convert to the Catholic Church, a priest who died only recently after contributing beautifully to the dialogue between Catholic Christians and other Christians. “Catholic Matters, Confusion, Controversy and the Splendor of Truth” bu Richard John Neuhaus. I understand you may not agree with him, though I think you may be surprised, but regardless you will be better informed. Please do not read tone or insult or anything of the kind in my response to you. God bless and may the peace of Christ rule your heart and mind and grant you strength in your calling.

  8. Thank you for the recommendation! I agree a lot with Neuhaus. I have read several articles by Neuhaus while in Seminary. I have immense respect for him, but sadly, there are many Lutherans that dismissed him when he went “Fully Roman.” I actually thought about him the other week because of the kind of “Evangelical Catholicism” he advocated for. I thought about what the ELCA would be like today if more people went with Neuhaus. I do not take offense at your tone or comment. Grace and Peace to you all!

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