The mark of courage: Taking ashes for the first time (COMMENTARY)

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The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John's Episcopal Church in Chicago imposes ashes on a passerby in 2011 as part of a growing "Ashes to Go" program in the Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John's Episcopal Church in Chicago imposes ashes on a passerby in 2011 as part of a growing "Ashes to Go" program in the Episcopal Church.

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(RNS) I’ve never taken ashes before, because I didn’t want anyone to judge me for my beliefs. I didn’t want anyone to see. But this year will be different. For the first time, I will show up at church for services, step up to the pastor and present my forehead for the mark.

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  • Kelly

    Silly ritual. See also Ashura by that other big popularity cult that gets so much news these days.

  • “I’ve never taken ashes before, because I didn’t want anyone to judge me for my beliefs.”

    THAT was a good call.

    “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.” (Deut. 22:28)

    I wish you’d consider the consequences to others – perhaps young girls – of promoting this terrible religion.

  • However – Don’t get me wrong.
    I defend your right to promote your religion if you wish.

  • One more thing. It is not in my opinion a mark of courage.
    The ashes are a mark of submission and surrender to authority.

    I can say this because I wore the ashes every Ash Wednesday for my entire life until my 44th year when I began to have doubts about god.

    I didn’t lose my faith completely until I was 51.

  • Fran


    Yes, Lent and Ash Wednesday have no basis in the Bible, so it is all really unnecessary and futile. I have never heard of Ashura before.

  • Neon Genesis

    I wish you’d consider checking your own disgusting misogyny at the door before you accuse this woman of enabling rapists.

  • Neon Genesis

    One more thing. I reported you to the mods. Accusing someone of supporting rape without evidence is a serious charge and you can get into serious trouble for doing it.

  • Doc Anthony

    So here’s what your article sounds like: If Lily Burana publicly identifies with Christianity by wearing ashes for Ash Wednesday, some of her **liberal and LGBT** pals will start judging her, distrusting her, and (to some degree) rejecting her.

    You know why some bridges burn themselves? Because Christ and Christianity really is NOT compatible with everything out there. You already know that. You gotta choose one or the other. You gotta take a stand on some things. You gotta risk being called a “Scripture-hobbled cave dweller.”

    (After all, by your own admission, you DID buy into the truth claims of John 3:16, didn’t you? So you’re signing up with Scripture just like all the rest of the Christians!)

    So enjoy your Lent season, and enjoy burning up those bridges. Burn ’em up good. And be sure to pour some extra gasoline on them — it’s more fun that way!!!

  • Gregory Lynch

    Thank you Lilly for sharing your experiences. All of the feelings you describe are authentic and I commend you on taking the next step in your journey. I had a very similar experiences over five years ago as part of my “reconversion” to Christianity. In my own experiences, the friends who were most hostile to my reconversion helped me to uncover the darkest aspects of my psyche (selfishness, greed, self-doubt and cynicism) so that they may be healed. Many blessings on your Lenten journey and beyond.

  • John McGrath

    When did Christians start with the ashes on Ash Wednesday? When did Christians establish Lent? Just curious.

  • J.C. Samuelson

    No, Lily. Bridges don’t burn themselves. People do part ways over personal disagreements, yes, but bridges need not burn as a result. Unless you’ve replaced your self-centered fear with self-righteousness you can probably leave those bridges standing. You might not travel them as often – maybe never again – but they do represent a connection to someone whose life touched yours.

    Then again, if you prefer the poetic imagery of smouldering ruins as a light for your path, who am I to argue? Human beings love to build walls & burn bridges in the name of ideology.

  • Kelly

    Fran you should try to read more than that one terrible fantasy book, and get out in the world from time to time too.

  • Kelly

    Neon, what misogyny are you accusing Atheist Max of? He is mainly quoting the owner’s manual of a sexist and misogynistic religion, and warning others of it, not being misogynistic himself. Looks like he is doing a public service, one that is of benefit to women.

    And Atheist Max, Thank You!

  • Kelly

    Baloney, Neon. Atheist Max is quoting the instructions of a particular popular and awful holy book, that being the evidence, and warning about it. That is a public service.

    The religion of that book is what should be in serious trouble. And it is.

  • Neon,

    Christianity promotes deep hatred of women. Not me.
    Christianity defends these despicable texts – not me.

    It is high time for women to take a very close look at what these religions are promoting and saying about women.

  • @Kelly,

    “a public service, one that is of benefit to women.”

    Thanks for understanding what I’m trying to say. Women sometimes are not told by priests just how much hatred this God has for them.

  • Neon,

    I have no interest in spreading bad things – The Bible is filled with terrible, horrible hatred for women.

    I defend your right to believe in it – but similarly I feel I must speak up.

    Whenever I read about a beautiful young woman turning toward this Yahweh God I get chills for how little they are told about what is in this religion.

    I hate cruelty. I hate seeing people get broken.
    In America people are told to respect religion. But we shouldn’t.

    we should be respecting the believers – we should be caring deeply about them and their delusions.

    People have every right to worship this god if they want to. I defend their right to their freedom of religion.

    But putting a few warnings up and asking them to reconsider seems like a perfectly rational thing to do:


    “And the daughter…if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” – Yahweh (Leviticus 21:9)

    Isn’t pride supposed to be a bad thing? Isn’t killing supposed be wrong?

    Nope. Both are demands of this god.

    The Bible and The Q’uran should come with warning labels!!!

  • @Neon,

    “your own disgusting misogyny”

    Wrong – Nothing is more generally important to me in our society right now than women’s rights! Women’s emancipation has been the silver bullet of success in every society which tried it.

    Women’s rights lessens poverty.
    Women’s rights increases financial equality and improves democracy – IN EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY WHERE IT HAS BEEN TRIED.

    Yet Christians are spending billions of dollars trying to destroy the hard-won emancipation that women have achieved.

    If you insist on destroying women’s rights you at least ought to have the decency to understand who is the misogynist around here! It isn’t me.

  • Doc Anthony

    So, Max, here’s a sincere (curiosity) question for you.

    (And no, I won’t report you — that ain’t my style anyway. Gotta have good freedom of speech on the RNS, baby!)

    So here’s your question; give me your best shot. You say the God of the Bible has got a lotta hatred for women, right? Okay.

    But if what you say is really true, then why do I always see more WOMEN than MEN attending all these churches (including the Catholic churches)? How would you explain that phenomenon?

  • Doc,

    “why do I always see more WOMEN than MEN attending all these churches…?”

    I don’t know. Ask some women who quit the church and they will have the best answers.
    There are many possible reasons:

    1. Women are often treated as second class citizens. Many are at the mercy of the system which puts them in submission of their husbands. The institution creates a ‘fight or flight’ response. It is much easier and more practical to go with the flow – it also creates something called “Stockholm Syndrome” where you are trained to love that which you fear (God).

    2. Fear – look at the fear people show at the very thought that god may not exist. Though it is a harmless conclusion with no consequences at all – many cannot bring themselves to even consider the notion.

    3. Obedience – look at how easy it is to do what your parents told you to do. This goes for men and women.

    4. Control – Women are taught by the church to be obedient not only to God but to men. The church is a male figure demanding obedience.

    5. Social reasons – Women may (or may not) be a bit more interested than men in the social connections which church provides.

    6. Stability – families run by women especially need stability and churches can provide social supports

    Churches are not evil places. They are as good or as bad as the people who show up each Sunday.

    The Unitarians gather to sing songs, listen to a few motivational words and have a coffee hour. Who really needs more than that?
    The religious part of it is just awful, divisive and enslaving.

  • Doc,

    “Because Christ and Christianity really is NOT compatible with everything out there.”

    Why can’t Christians just be happy?

    Why can’t you just accept your Jesus in your heart and be glad you are going to Heaven?

    Why must everybody else be forced to hear ad Nauseum about this ‘wondrous Jesus’ – why must EVERYONE do the REPENTING?
    You say are going to Heaven. Fine. Repent for yourself.

    Why are you so insistent that Heaven is not enough? Why must everyone else think exactly like you? What is this fascist force in each Christian that won’t stop shoving their personal version of Christianity on everyone else?

    Catholics, Protestants, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Puritans, Menonites…everybody is praying everybody else to Hell!

    Yet Christians are constructing a Hell on earth by promoting all this various contradictory nonsense and clearly your God does not care one way or the other!!

    If he did he would come down and straighten it all out – which he doesn’t!

    So God either exists and doesn’t care.
    Or God does not exist and we all should just get along and stop pushing each other around!

  • Thank You Lily 🙂

    It seems like observing this time of reflection and “intention” could be useful whatever your belief system…ie: it’s not just useful for Christians…

    Lent has never been part of my spiritual practice nor tradition, but I am moved to observe it this year as I return to being more “intentional” about certain aspects of my life.

    Blessings & Joy!!

  • Chris

    Ash Wednesday and Lent don’t have to be “in the Bible” for good Christians to observe the practice. In many ways, both are symbolic, but symbolism is often the only means for us lowly humans to connect to the Truth revealed in the Scriptures and to God Himself. What is more, the Church has practiced these things for many centuries, even before there was a “Bible.” But since you need “Biblical Evidenece” In the OT, the Hebrews would don ashes or dust upon their heads while in mourning or to show humility before God. Even in the NT, the practice continued, though Christ did warn against making a show of it for personal glory.

    If one doesn’t observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, then how can one possibly rejoice in the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday or Pascha?

  • Rob

    Fran, there’s this new thing on the Internets now called The Google. You can enter in your Internet Explorer or AOL and when it loads over your dialup then you can put text like “Ashura” in the box in the center of your screen and Mr. Google will go out and find some things for you. Try it. It’s pretty cool.

  • God bless. it’s actually quite liberating to express one’s faith. At least I have found it so. Don’t forget to pray.

  • Karla

    Manny-Amen/very well said!

  • Karla

    Kelly-God/Jesus are real. Read Romans 1:18-32/check out all of the
    Bible prophecy that came true like Psalm 22:16-18 and Isaiah 53:3-7.
    God said He will pour out His spirit on all flesh…sons and daughters
    so you are loved by Christ. Many people want to try to discredit the
    Bible so check your sources and many people twist Scripture/take
    verses out of context. Look at the universe and all of His creation.
    The sun is set perfect so we don’t burn of freeze. Just by chance?
    God created the universe and God/Jesus are very real. God bless.

  • Doc Anthony

    You ask, “Why can’t Christians just be happy? Why can’t you just accept your Jesus in your heart and be glad you are going to Heaven?”

    Those are good questions Max. But you may be asking the wrong person. I have my ups and downs like everybody else; I have to work the rat race like everybody else; but on a daily basis, I am just HAPPY and even EXCITED about Jesus Christ.

    You would not be out-of-line if you called me a fanatic, although I don’t act like one. (Except sometimes in church. Sorry, I can’t help it. Too much excitement. Start dancing a little in the aisle.) So yes, I’m very happy about the Lord Jesus Christ and also the Bible.


    “You say are going to Heaven. Fine. Repent for yourself.”

    That’s true, I agree with you. But when have I ever asked YOU to repent of anything, Max? Not once, not once. When have I ever bragged to you, even once, that I am going to heaven? NOT ONCE.

    The reality is that both you and I have read and studied the Bible. We both know what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, we know what it says, we both know what it is calling for. You could likely quote John 3:16 and many other scriptures to me from MEMORY. Am I right about that?

    So why should I nag and rag on you about things like repentence and heaven? I totally agree with those biblical claims, but I don’t nag you about it. I already know that you know about ’em. You know their importance.

    So I simply do whatever I do, and simply post whatever I post, (right or wrong), and sometimes I do the happy dance when the church music is playing.

    Max, have YOU ever done the ~~happy dance~~ during a church service?

  • Doc,

    “Max, have YOU ever done the ~~happy dance~~ during a church service?”

    of course. I lived near a Baptist church for years and joined in the Gospel choir often. I can re-create those emotions in 2 seconds. If all they did was sing and dance I’d still go to church sometimes – unfortunately they pollute it with a bunch of speeches about Jesus which simply cannot be believed.

  • Fran


    The Bible is God’s Word, the source of truth from him, to let us humans know about our past, our present (and why the world of mankind has gone completely crazy), and our future, living forever on a paradise earth, where all terrible conditions will be done away with!

    This will soon be realized through the rule of God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44; Isaiah 11:1-9), and all sickness, disease, old age and death will become things of the past (Revelation 21:1-4).

    God and his Word, the Bible, will be vindicated as being true and most beneficial to mankind. We can already see what man’s corrupt, selfish and greedy rulership on his own provides. They will never deliver on their promises, but God will.

  • Brettany,

    Your sentiment reminds me of how difficult it can be for a person to express their feelings.

    I’m very sorry for polluting your attempt to share something personal about yourself and to clutter it up with a bunch of my own angers about my former religion and my own experiences of Ash Wednesdays (which stretch back 5 decades).

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It was written quite beautifully. And if you see the wearing of Ashes as a courageous act – I commend you for being courageous – though I might disagree.


  • Fran


    I did Google it, and it’s definitely something I dont observe.

  • Fran


    Yes, it was a practice in Biblical days to sit in ashes or to scatter them upon oneself in symbol of mourning, humiliation and repentance (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; 2 Samuel 13:19).

    Deep misery and affliction were figuratively linked with the “eating of ashes” (Psalm 102:9) and afflicted Job sat “in among the ashes” (Job 2:8).

    Sackcloth and ashes were sometimes associated with fasting, weeping or sorrow. A national example of this was furnished in the case of Nineveh in Jonah’s day, with her King even covering himself with sackcloth and sitting down in the ashes. (Jonah 3:5,6)

    Repenting in sackcloth and ashes was a circumstance referred to by Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:21), and in answering God, Job declared, “I do repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

    During the 70-year desolation of Judah, the Jews in Babylon mourned over the desolation of Jerusalem. But through the prophet, Isaiah, assurance was given that under the power of God’s spirit, there would be action to “assign to those mourning over Zion, to give them a headress instead of ashes.”

    Jesus applied that passage of Isaiah 61:1-3 to himself as the messianic liberator who would be instrumental in relieving spiritual desolation and mourning (Luke 4:16-21).

    Jesus will definitely put an end to all mourning during his upcoming millennial rule from God’s kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 21:3-4), and because of that, we should rejoice today.

  • Fran


    Lent was probably started after the death of the last apostle, John, when false religion got its start along with many man-made traditions. Concerning Ash Wednesday, there is no reference to it in the New Testament being exercised by Christians; although it is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, before Jesus arrived on earth. Nor Easter, for that matter.

    Just Google origins of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Easter. I’m sure you will be surprised by what you find there.

  • Doc Anthony

    And there’s the rub, Max. Delete all the sermons, you suggest, and just do those wonderful and passionate church songs, and under those conditions, you would still visit church sometimes, you suggest.

    Okay, I understand that. I got it. Let’s delete those sermons, yes. (For the sake of this discussion).

    But that leads to the next question, and I’m serious about it. Again, assuming that all the sermons are DELETED from the church service:

    Where are all your passionate, soul-touching Baptist church songs, where is all the hand-clapping, let-your-hair-down, raise-your-hands, forget-yourself-and-start-dancing-in-front-of-God music, within your current belief-system of ATHEISM?

    You see, you DID have something good there, Max, something that DID make rational sense to you at the time, and it DID resonate on the inside with who you are. It felt right. Your heart felt like it had wings, just sing another 5 minutes and you might just start flying in the air.

    You weren’t singing about hatred or killing, but about love and transformation and healing and miracle. You sang about people getting second chances and clean slates. You sang about special hope, new life, even when this present life and rat-race hardships are passed away in death. You sang about joy that doesn’t have limits or boundaries.

    But atheism doesn’t offer those things. There’s not even Anybody to sing or dance to anymore, because there is no God in the atheist religion. Like DonMcClean sang on the radio, “the music….has died.”

    So what now, Max? You say you’re an atheist, and I truly believe you. But now, what do you have left? You have lost so much. Where are your wings, your faith, your joy, your unlimited possibilities? Don’t you want to fly again?

    In other words, Where is your happy dance?

  • Doc,

    “But atheism doesn’t offer those things.”

    Sure it does.
    I still sing the gospel music and Christmas songs.
    Getting caught up in the fun doesn’t mean that God is real.
    Belief in a real god isn’t needed for any of it.

    Look at all the Samba music or the Reggae music about love!
    No god is needed to make those songs or to enjoy them.

    Look at all the Atheists who have a great time singing and dancing everywhere.

    If anything it is the religious sects which forbid all these things – Islam forbids music and dancing!
    Many Christian sects forbid enjoying life at all! Many forbid music and dancing.

    I love Nigerian music – I have no idea what they are saying but the beats are amazing. No god needed to make it or to enjoy it.
    And I get very emotional just listening to the yearning in their voices.

    Life is beautiful. People are naturally good and want to have fun.
    All these gods just mess it up.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Good for you, Max! I agree, Lily wrote a wonderfully revealing part of our faith and expressed it beautifully.
    As for those whose comments about Scripture is hateful, learn to have open minds and study them with impartiality!

  • Rob

    There is a whole lot that you don’t observe, Fran.

  • Fran, I’ll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns.

    Don’t forget to wear your nose ring -the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practicing for the Uplifting.

  • Fran, I’ll see you in the rapture capsule with the unicorns.

    Don’t forget to wear your nose ring -the big steel one that I padlocked the chain onto when we were practicing for the great Uplifting.

  • Delrin


    Actually, Lent was started after some people toked some really bad weed and thought of something cosmically weird to do with the ashes afterward. You’ll find better exercise outside those testaments though. Try a bicycle or go for a jog. You know you need to.

    Just Google cosmic ash spreading with moldy cheese on soggy crackers in a hailstorm. I’m sure you will be surprised by what you find there.

  • Fran


    That’s so true; but then, Jesus and the first-century Christians didn’t observe them either. I’m just following their example.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The Bible is not meant to be a spiritual straight-jacket. The imposition of ashes is–in the Catholic Tradition –always accompanied by a Biblical passage meant to wake us up and give focus to our faith and deeds over the next 40 days in the Lenten “desert” with Our Lord and Savior.

  • Yesterday on Ash Wednesday Inhad the privilege to attend a church service with a Prison Chaplin in a prison (I am a volunteer with Prison Fellowships) . One of the inmate is an Greek Orthodox. when I asked what was he thought about Lent period I was very surprised
    Their teaching is to fast with your tongue and with your eyes. Then you fast with your food. Fasting with your tongue I believe is a big challenge for all of us. This comment is commented in the OT and NT many a times we just need to see these sentences that allude to that issue. Fasting with your eyes is another issue that is mentioned . If we take more time to read slowly and carefully the bible would be such a big help in our life’s. Yes, all system try to under mine a weaker person. The bible is also counter acting against it. To whom did Jesus appear first ? Yes, it was a woman not a man. Jesus new what human beings are alike and I wish that would be more highlighted in any of the Christian Churches.
    The secular system Max is not very good either how women are used. As a feminist (believing in equality) is sometimes quite a challenge. Wherever it is possible my husband helps me to break those barriers down. I wish all a challenging period of Lenten time

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  • Rob

    I rest my Fran case. Sheesh.

  • Bob

    DeaconJohn, the whole Jesus-savior story of your crazy holy book is a steaming pile of nonsense. How is it again that your omnipotent being couldn’t do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus’ death a “sacrifice”, when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic “god” that you’ve made for yourself there.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
    Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

  • Bob

    Therese, the “secular system”, unlike the hateful and bigoted bible, does not come with pre-ordained strictures that demand unfair treatment (and “use”) of women.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
    Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    “Break the Chains”
    Actually Christians do a pretty good job of helping people break their chains (especially when compared with atheists.)
    Most historians give ministers credit for supporting the American Revolution and breaking the king’s chains (Sam Adams was a church deacon and many of the leading revolutionaries held church positions–like vestry man.)
    The fight against slavery was lead by both Black and White ministers.
    And the fall of the Communist tyrannical atheist empire is credited
    largely to a Polish pope and a devout Catholic union leader Lech Walesa.
    What did atheists give us?: The French Revolution and The Terror, Gulags,etc.

  • Bob

    Nice dodge, DeaconJohn. This time, try to not be such a coward, and for a change, respond to what you have been challenged with. The subject and questions again:

    The whole Jesus-savior story of your crazy holy book is a steaming pile of nonsense. How is it again that your omnipotent being couldn’t do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus’ death a “sacrifice”, when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers?

  • Neon Genesis

    He is accusing this woman of supporting rape merely by guilt by association when he knows nothing about her beliefs or how she interprets the bible or whether she’s liberal or conservative or whatever.

  • Neon Genesis

    Do you also oppose the misogyny of atheists like Richard Dawkins or is it only religious misogyny you oppose?

  • Neon Genesis

    What about when Bill Maher said Israel should deal with Palestine like he deals with a hysterical woman or when Dawkins downplayed the seriousness of date rape?

  • Neon,

    I don’t understand why it matters what Maher says or Dawkins.
    Who cares?

    Rush Limbaugh thinks Muslims should be shot without a trial.

    What does any of that have to do with claims about your God, your Holy Text, your claims about what is (supposedly) absolute truth?

    And idiotic comment by scientist doesn’t change SCIENCE!
    Water still freezes at 32 degrees whether Dawkins likes hysterical women or not!!

  • A book which dictates The VIRTUE of CHOPPING OF A WOMAN’S HAND as a way to obey God and live eternally in Heaven
    Is not the same thing as a man who says something stupid about women.

    Who cares what Dawkins says? I don’t. He’s an male chauvinist scientist from the last century.

    Science is true whether one believes it or not. When scientists report on science that is their only area of expertise.

    But Holy Books claim to be factual – yet unlike science, there is absolutely no evidence for any of it.

    No Scientific fact has ever been corrected by a claim in a Holy Book.
    In fact, Science continues to destroy the claims of holy books faster than apologists can invent defenses!