Why is Ash Wednesday so Popular?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a local Ash Wednesday service to get my ashes.  I couldn’t believe how packed the church was.  The church I went to seats about four hundred people.  Every pew was filled to capacity and people were standing along the outside aisles.  Many others crowded into the Narthex--another two hundred by my count.  There were so many people that the distribution of ashes, which normally takes five minutes or so, nearly took fifteen minutes!

In the last few years, Ash Wednesday has become the most popular religious service in America.  More people now crowd into churches on Ash Wednesday than do on Christmas and Easter.  The demand for ashes is so high, many churches offer creative ways for people to get them, like the “Ash and Dash” service being offered in the town next to me, or the many “drive through” ash distribution opportunities people can now access.  Culturally, something new is happening around Ash Wednesday.  Many people who don’t ordinarily practice their faith with the same fervor, if at all, flock to have a priest or minister apply a cross of ashes on their foreheads so they can walk around all day marked with the traditional “kick-off” sign of Lenten observance.

If I was being cynical, I would say this is just a fad.  In a few years it will be replaced with something else or just fade away altogether.  Merely being a fad, it is not doing any real good.  It is just an empty ritual, a meaningless gesture.  The only thing it is actually doing is making it more difficult for regular church attenders to find a seat!

But I think there is something more going on.  I think that the symbolism of the ashes is tapping into something deep and undeniable in the human psyche.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, taps into our sense of mortality.  Our finitude.  Our insignificance in such an old and vast universe.  As depressing as this might be, it is (strangely) good, healthy, perhaps even cathartic, to be mindful of our mortality. 

But I think the ashes tap into something even more significant than our mortality.  We all go through life with a profound but often unarticulated sense of falling short.  We know the kind of people we should be, the kind of people we desperately want to be.  But we keep letting others, and ourselves, down.  We hurt the ones we love, often deeply and in ways that we can’t take back or undo.  We fail to seize the many opportunities we have to show kindness and compassion to those around us.  Too often, we are callous, indifferent to the plight of the poor, hard hearted toward the most marginalized.  In other words, what used to be called sin.  And even if we don’t call it sin anymore, we still feel a heavy burden of guilt.  We still have a visceral sense of our need to repent and be forgiven. 

I once read about something Billy Graham said when trying to explain to an interviewer why he thought his preaching had such a massive impact.  As many have pointed out--and Graham would readily admit--his sermons weren’t the most eloquent, insightful, or profound.  They were actually quite simple and direct.  So why did they stir so many who came to his packed evangelical crusades to respond to the Gospel?  Graham was the first to insist that it was the power of the Gospel, a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.  But Graham conjectured that, if there was one thing about his sermons that enabled people to experience God’s grace so powerfully, it was what he could assure every human being struggles with.  In every sermon, he addressed the three areas every person struggles with and then showed how the Gospel resolves them. 

First, everyone one struggles with loneliness.  And not just on a human level, but a cosmic one as well.  We are desperate to know we are not alone in the Universe.  Second, we all fear death.  Even though we often put a brave face on it, insisting we aren’t afraid of what comes next, of “crossing over”, even of looking forward to seeing our loved ones, we are all terrified of this ultimate unknown.  Especially in moments we have to face our mortality directly.  Or are kept awake late at night thinking about it.  Third, we all carry a crushing burden of guilt around with us.  Though we rarely, if ever, acknowledge it, we do have a profound sense of regret and dread that we might have to face some kind of final judgment.  A judgment where we will have to give account for our lives.  Our hypersensitivity over feeling judged by others is the symptom of this dread. 

Graham knew if he spoke to these three universal human angsts, he could also show how the Gospel overcomes them all.  And, as a result, millions of people responded to the Gospel he preached.

When we consider the vastness of the universe, we feel small and insignificant.  But when we discover that the Creator of all this vastness is, as the Psalmist (8:3-4) tells us, mindful of us, we are filled with awe and wonder.

When we consider our sin, or whatever we choose to call all the ways we miss the mark, we are filled with regret and, especially in light of such a vast and awesome Creator, with dread.  But when we discover that, eons beyond just being mindful of us, He Himself has taken on human flesh and shed His blood to save us, we are swept up in His saving Grace, overwhelmed and awestruck at a love so wonderous and vast. 

That He would identify so fully with us, that He is so irrevocably committed to us, is how we know we are not simply stardust--ashes to ashes, dust to dust--but that, in Jesus, we can live forever in His love.   

So, what about you?  Did you go to an Ash Wednesday service this year?  What motivated you to go?  I’d love to hear your feedback!  Go to the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus and leave your comments there.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More