The Mysterious Happiness of Ash Wednesday

The joy of Lent (and of the whole Christian life) is not the joy of possessing, but of letting go.

A priest marks the symbol of the cross with ash on the foreheads of Catholic children during an Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 26, 2020, in Fot, Hungary.
A priest marks the symbol of the cross with ash on the foreheads of Catholic children during an Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 26, 2020, in Fot, Hungary. (photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images)

One of the glorious privileges of being a teacher is the periodic opportunity to sit at a desk in the school hallway for almost an entire hour. This honor is given the dubious title hall duty, and it is, if nothing else, a chance for a teacher to get to know some people he might not otherwise meet. It even gave me the chance to make a spiritual connection once.

On an Ash Wednesday a number of years ago, I was sitting on hall duty with the cross of ashes on my forehead. I am always curious to see people’s reactions to the ashes. This time a colleague who I hadn’t met saw the ashes and said to me, “Happy Ash Wednesday,” as he passed. He immediately stopped, furrowed his brow because he realized how strange it sounded, and said, “I guess.”

Since the topic had been on my mind, I was given the grace to promptly justify his salutation. “Well, the way up is down, so I guess it is appropriate to say ‘Happy Ash Wednesday,’” I replied.

He nodded his head in agreement and continued on whatever quest required his attention. 

The next day a popular Catholic ministry sent out a Lenten meditation, and the title was The Way Up Is Down. I was glad for the affirmation of what I had said to my colleague the day before. Later in the day, that same colleague forwarded me the meditation, and a friendship was formed. We have kept in touch, encouraged one another, prayed for one another and even attended some conferences together.

Thomas Merton, in a meditation on Ash Wednesday, writes, “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise.” Even when we are reminded of our mortality by the smearing of ashes in the shape of a cross, an instrument of Roman torture and execution, there is confidence and joy.

This is either absolute madness or else profound wisdom. The truth of either option is determined by the truth or falsehood of Christianity.

Either we recognize our lowly, fallen state (going down), and then there is no mercy, redemption, or love (staying down), or else we embrace our own nothingness (going down) so that our souls may be opened to the mercy, redemption and love of God (the way up). We cannot go up to Truth Itself if we refuse to descend to the truth of our own lowliness. If we remain exalted, we will be humbled. If we humble ourselves, we will be exalted with Him (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11). But without Christ the Redeemer, there is no possibility of an up after, with or by the down.

This paradox is expressed by the mysterious declaration from the liturgy, “O happy fault that earned for us so great and glorious a redeemer.” This sentence is either utter foolishness or deep insight. It’s not about us, but about him. Fasting is not about misery, but about joy. Self-denial is not about physical pain, but about abundant love. Our sins are not, in the end, about our faults, but about our beautiful Savior. Ashes are not about death, but about life. Merton writes:

The cross of ashes, traced upon the forehead of each Christian, is not only a reminder of death but inevitably (though tacitly) a pledge of resurrection.  The ashes of a Christian are no longer mere ashes.  The body of a Christian is a temple of the Holy Ghost, and though it is fated to see death, it will return again to life in glory.

What makes our Ash Wednesday and Lenten fast so joyful is the work of God, not any pleasure in the works themselves. Ash Wednesday is, mysteriously, a happy day only because there is a God whose love is even more mysteriously beyond our comprehension. The joy of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the whole Christian life is not the joy of possessing, but of letting go. It is not the security of holding on to God, but of being held by God.