Posted by: smstrouse | February 18, 2012

Can Ash Wednesday Be Redeemed?

There are certain times in the church year when it’s challenging to have a progressive take on Christianity. Ash Wednesday is one of those days. What can you do with a day that is ostensibly all about sin, uncleanliness, confession, and repentance?

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
                                                                  Psalm 51

First of all, let me say that I do not think we should throw the concepts of sin, confession, and repentance out the window. The writer of I John was right: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;” as is the old saying “Confession is good for the soul.”  And repentance – when understood as metanoia, that is as a transformational shift of viewpoint and direction, a re-turning toward God – is a necessary part of one’s spiritual life.

But there’s the point. As Borg and Crossan have stated, many of our ‘religious’ words need to be redeemed (although redemption is itself one of those words) if the concepts are to continue to have meaning to today’s Christian. I would add that many of our holy days must be redeemed as well .

My suspicion is that most of are well aware of our failings. We’re told all too often that we are unworthy. We’ve internalized so many critical messages that we are our own harshest critics.  “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” just confirms what we already knew. Far too few, on the other hand, have been messages affirming our innate belovedness.

It seems to me that the message of Ash Wednesday – “Remember that you are ashes, and to ashes you will return” – doesn’t have to be the beginning of a season of self-flagellation. Instead, as the ashes remind us of our humanity, we remember our essential goodness in being part of God’s good Creation. And of course we also turn to the business of metanoia, but in joy and hope.

Does Ash Wednesday offer good news to today’s progressive Christian?  I believe so. Can we redeem it? That remains to be seen.



  1. I am a progressive United Methodist teaching a short 30-minute class to second graders on Ash Wednesday, and I, too, am reluctant to throw the “we are groveling worms unworthy of forgiveness” stuff in their faces. Reminding us of our humanitym mortality and our special place in God’s heart is, I think, a way of doing that than 8-year-olds can embrace. Thanks for the thoughts!


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