Across the Christian world, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season Lent, popularly understood as a time to do penance, especially fasting, and to improve the spiritual quality of our lives. The duration of 40 days is often associated Jesus’ journey into the desert for 40 days.
The ceremonial use of ashes is credited to Pope Gregory I the Great (c. 540–604). The ashes is spread over the crown of the head or etched with the sign of the Cross on the forehead – with the accompanying formula: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In the 1969 revision of the Roman Rite, an alternative formula (based on Mark 1:15) was introduced: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."
The old formula was based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, reminding worshippers of their sinfulness and mortality and thus of their need for repentance. The newer formula “Repent and believe in the Gospel” suggests that the penance of Lent is not merely about overcoming sin, but rather committing oneself anew to living by the requirements of the Gospel.
Beyond Individual Salvation
For those Christians who still maintain the practice, the focus is very much on individual/personal change of heart, with varying degrees of background emphasis on salvation of one’s immortal soul. Such salvation requires a distancing of oneself from the affairs of this world (described in the past as a vale of tears), in order to prepare for happiness in a life hereafter. Only in the heavenly realm – beyond this sinful, corrupt creation – can humans hope to be right with God and enjoy eternal life forever.
Like several other religious rituals, the Ash Wednesday ceremony needs to be reformed, not merely to make it more meaningful for people today, but also to re-establish a more authentic scriptural and theological foundation. For most people, ashes denotes waste, futility, that which is no longer useful. And when combined with the formula, you are dust and to dust you shall return, human existence is being judged as wasteful, superficial, useless, good for nothing.
The old formula is also a meaningless statement in terms of our real world, where dust is the carrier of a vast range of life-substances all of which are necessary for, and central to, a meaningful life – as spelt out in scientific works such as Vital Dust (1995) by Christian de Duve (Nobel prize laureate) or The Secret Life of Dust by (2001) Hannah Holmes. In an attempt to be more congruent with nature’s use of dust, some people suggest that we adopt the formula: Remember, you are stardust, and to that you will return.
Scientifically and theologically, it seems important that we move away from the old derogatory significance of dust and futility. In reforming the Ash Wednesday ritual, however, I propose we move in another direction more congruent with the scientific and theological wisdom of our time. Let’s focus the attention on the soil of the earth rather than on ashes. Let’s make it an occasion to celebrate and affirm our earthly status as Earthlings, creatures of God, fashioned from the energizing creativity of the soil of the earth.
Recent Papal teaching (Pope Francis) points us in that direction. In Laudate Si (no.139), we read: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”
To the best of my knowledge this is the first Papal document ever to contain the declaration: We are part of nature. For some 2,000 years Christianity has denounced nature as the abode of sin and temptation. Although humans inhabit it, and live off its produce, we were told time and again that we really did not belong to this vale of tears, and that we should eagerly look forward to escaping from this tragic place to the peace and fulfilment of our heavenly home in a world beyond.
Reworking the Ash Wednesday Tradition
In the latter half of the 20th century, that anti-word spirituality began to disintegrate under the impact of its own internal corruption. The dualistic splitting of the sacred v. the secular lost meaning for millions of religious adherents. Some opted out, angry or disillusioned for being cheated for so long. Many drifted away. Others, a minority, consisting largely of older people sought out more integrated approaches, based on the conviction that creation itself is radiant with God’s love and goodness. Among that group are many wise elders and I have been privileged to work with them over recent decades.
The tradition of Ash Wednesday can be reworked to embrace and recreate our current awakening around our God-given identity as Earthlings, and the call to an eco-spirituality, rendering more devoted care to our suffering earth. The ritual outlined below focusses on our earthiness as gift, not as a sinful burden.
Consequently, our spiritual responsibilities for each Lenten season, are not just about personal penance or sacrifice. The focus is on what we “take on” not what we “give up.” Living sustainably as Earthlings does involve sacrifice, in the sense that we take from the earth only what we need, and at all times we re-use and recycle rather than consume voraciously. All of which happens more spontaneously, as we grow into a deeper sense of our caring – what we take on – for all those creatures with whom we share the web of life, irrespective of their benefits for our species.
In those situations where we draw on the life of other beings – whether for our nourishment or development – we must learn to do so non-violently and in ways that are mutually enhancing for those beings as well as for ourselves. Working out the practical implications of this ethic of care is a task that has scarcely begun. Unfortunately, neither churches nor religions are likely to rise to this challenge. However, it will become an inescapable responsibility for governments of the future and we the citizens will need to keep this in mind when voting for our parliamentarians.
A New Approach to the Ash Wednesday Ritual.
For a Christian ritual to be mutually empowering, a communal gathering is desirable. Even in a virtual context, try and bring along a few friends to share the experience with you. The outline of the ceremony consists of the following elements:
- A Gathering Song or Chant
- An Opening Prayer
- An inspiring Earth-based Reading
- Participants Earth each other – best done in twos.
- Praying the Earth Litany and Concluding Prayer
- Concluding Chant
- Sign of Peace and Departure
Each participant is asked to bring: a copy of the outline of the ceremony, a lighted candle, and small bowl of earth. If possible select the earth from a favourite spot that has some special meaning for you, and after the ceremony return the soil to its source.
The ritual is timed for about 30 mins.
Ritual of Earthing for Ash Wednesday
- Gathering: Several of the chants of Jan Novotka (http://www.jannovotka.com/) are particularly suitable. E.g., “Consciousness Waking” or “In the name of all that is we come together.” Some of the songs of Carolyn McDade are also recommended.
- 2. Opening Prayer (read by the convenor or by the entire group);
Gracious Spirit, energizing all that begets and sustains life, Spirit of our living earth, enlivening source of all that nurtures us as Earthlings, creatures of the living creation. Today, we celebrate in gratitude our earthiness and all that enriches our lives. Awaken us to the organic meaning of our earthly existence, and through this experience of empowering ritual, bless us with the wisdom and grace to live ever more fully in our care and nurturance for the Earth, that forever cares for us. With grateful hearts, we make this prayer. Amen.
- 3. An Appropriate Reading. I often use the following collection of excerpts from John O’Donohue’s Anam Chara: (p.126)
Essentially we belong beautifully to nature. The body knows this belonging and desires it. It does not exile us, either spiritually or emotionally. The human body is at home on the earth.
We so easily forget that our clay has a memory, a life of its own before it took our present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay. In each of us, a different part of the mystery becomes luminous. Maybe some clay comes from beside a calm lake, some from places where nature was exposed and lonely, and more from secluded and reserved places. We never know how many places of nature meet within the human body. Landscape is not all external; it has crept into the soul. Human presence is infused with landscape.
We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth.
(Let’s reflect quietly on this Reading)
- The Ritual of Earthing. One or several members of the group can administer the earth/clay to each other. The recipient holds open both hands, while the giver places some earth across both hands in a circular formation (symbol of wholeness). An image of the Cross can also be used, or any symbolism related to local earth reality.
Calling the person’s name, the giver then states: (Marie) receive the gift of earth’s soil.
Cherish the earth from which God has formed you.
And tend with loving care all that God has
entrusted to your care.
- 5. Earth Litany ending with Communal Prayer. One or more members can lead the litany and concluding prayer.
Response: Creatures of Earth, praise the Holy One
- For the energy of creation through which the Spirit co-creates all life ®
- For all embodied creatures with which we share the web of life ®
- For the gift of our own earthiness, that we may live as dignified Earthlings ®
- For the land entrusted to our care, and for all who farm our land ®
- For every garden that feeds and nourishes pollinators for life ®
- For the fruits of earth and the diverse gifts of season ®
- For the rivers and lakes and the waters that sustain all life ®
- For the seed that dies in each season to produce nourishment for life ®
- For the healing resources of trees and plants ®
- For the animals who adorn the landscape of our daily lives ®
- For all who work for eco-justice, protecting earth’s fragility ®
We allow a space for other intentions participants may wish to add
- Concluding Prayer: Creator and Holy One, we thank you for the gift of life. Bless us as you fashion us from the clay of the earth. And bless the earth-womb that sustains and nourishes us with the dawning hope of each new day.
Forgive us for the ways we neglect, abuse or exploit our own bodies and the earth body. And awaken within us compassion and care, tenderness and love, for all the gifts of creation. Amen.
- Concluding chant: As in No.1 above. Another appropriate chant (from Carolyn McDade) suitable for ending is this:
O beautiful Gaia, Gaia, calling us home
O beautiful Gaia, calling us on!
Exchange a Sign of Peace with some appropriate words of encouragement to become more devoted to the work of Earth-based Justice.