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Ash Wednesday: The Oddity of Prizing a Day of Great Darkness

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Pentecost is my favorite day of the Christian year. I love the red, the excitement, the passion, the Spirit.

The solemn drama of Ash Wednesday is a close second. Ash Wednesday inspires in ways impossible to describe.

I recognize the oddity of prizing a day of great darkness, a day memorializing death. But Ash Wednesday reminds us that God has not left humanity alone in darkness. Jesus was – and will be – there in that darkness.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church where church holidays included Christmas Eve, Christmas and Easter.

Of course, the church also celebrated a variety of secular American holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Independence Day. But we did not celebrate the great days or seasons of the church calendar – Advent, Lent, or particularly, Ash Wednesday.

It wasn’t until college that I learned the Christian year. As a lover of tradition, the holy days spoke deeply to my soul.

And, as a committed Christian, I liked being different. I liked how strange the church’s days appeared to the world. Christians should be different. Christians memorialize different events and celebrate differently.

I slowly began to realize the Christian calendar not only ordered my life but did so precisely because it marked God’s ordering of all time.

The church year locates me as a follower of the one who changed everything. The one whose life, death and resurrection split time into before and after.

The holy days connect me with Christians around the world – and across space and time – as a people set apart.

I’m not quite sure why Ash Wednesday became a favorite. I think it was in part because of its quiet, understated drama.

Dimmed lights, candles, ashes, hushed tones. A procession of people shuffling forward to receive ashes on their foreheads and words that remind them of their places in creation.

Every worship service should be a reminder that it’s not about us, but Ash Wednesday puts it especially bluntly: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday mingles with the very dark moments of my life. Not because I am not loved, but because I have experienced profound loneliness and uncertainty and fear and inexplicable darkness even amid all of that love.

Ash Wednesday reminds me that darkness – though disconcerting, disorienting and terrifying – bears purpose.

Ash Wednesday is a day of great gloom that leads into a season of still thicker fog: Lives are to be examined through prayer and fasting.

While the darkness invites the important disciplines of reflection and repentance, Ash Wednesday realizes its full beauty when Lenten discipline moves us beyond ourselves.

Lent shows the world how Christians respond to darkness. In Lent, we take on darkness.

Following our Lord, Lent offers Christians the opportunity to enter into the darkness of others and remind them they are not alone, that God is there.

We live in a world full of darkness. Pain, suffering, loneliness. Divorce, sickness, violence. Death. This darkness suffocates.

Thus, at the beginning of Lent, we may be overwhelmed by the pain and suffering of the world around us, unsure of how to proceed. The pain seems too much to bear, the darkness too great to endure.

Why attend an Ash Wednesday service to sit in darkness and be reminded? Why bring our children? Put simply, because we are called to remember. But also, so they – and we – might know we are not alone.

My husband and I choose to bring our children to these services so they will grow up with a different rhythm. Not the days of the week and the months of the year, but the seasons of the church.

We want their time to be marked by these reminders that their lives are not their own, that their lives are ordered not by the activities they choose but by sacred events that happened on their behalf.

Christianity is a faith that requires hard things. But it is also a faith that will never leave them alone in their darkness.

And, so, we are called together. To journey together. To suffer alongside one another. We sit in darkness together and wait.

I want the ashes on my head not for the attention they draw, but for the reminder they are. Yes, my life is finite. Yes, I am a sinful person. Yes, there is darkness. And, yes, I am God’s.

Mandy McMichael

Mandy McMichael is Assistant Director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. She is the author of "Miss America’s God" (Baylor University Press, 2019). McMichael and her husband, Chad Eggleston, have two children.