Ashes and Hope

Tree in a field, verevkin /
Tree in a field, verevkin /

Lent is a time when we try to identify with our own weakness, so since we are about to start the Church’s penitent season, it was shocking to read Virgilio Elizondo’s account of how a people generally considered weak on the geopolitical stage – poor Mexicans and Chicanos – do not treat Ash Wednesday as a day of penitence at all.

“For the masses of the people, it has little to do with the beginning of Lent. Lent as a season of self-sacrifice is not really of special interest to the people: the entire year is a time of suffering and abnegation. On Ash Wednesday Mexican-Americans renew their cultic communion with mother earth. For them the earth has always been sacred and they retain a fundamental identity with it. The earth supports and regenerates life; itis life.”

What a beautiful and unexpected connection!

Privileged American Christians do sometimes celebrate Lent as an expression of ecological self-sacrifice, so thinking of the ashes as earthen soil is not a wild stretch of the imagination. Perhaps we give up driving for the month, in order to ease our burden of pollution on the environment. Perhaps we give up meat because of the greenhouse gases created by factory farming. Perhaps we give up coffee because of how the international markets oppress the growers. By custom, we even acknowledge humanity’s own birth in the dirt, ritualized in the recitation of Genesis 3:19 on Ash Wednesday: “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

But the way Elizondo describes the Mexican-American celebration of Ash Wednesday gives the Holy Day a much more redemptive character: We don’t give things up merely as an act of penitence, to acknowledge how we mistreat God’s creation in our day-to-day lives. Rather, we give things up as an act of gratitude for the bounty the creation gives us. In this tradition, receiving the ashes is more like an act of Resurrection than an act of burial. It is a constructive ritual that marks our communion with the earth, instead of our enmity with it. It is absolution rather than confession. It’s looking forward to Easter, and new birth. Which is really the point, isn’t it?

To be sure, we have much to confess, but one of those things is our lack of hope that he world could be any different than it is. Maybe that fertile soil on our brows can remind us to hope.

Here’s a video from my friend David Wimbish that captures this idea:

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at

Photo: Tree in a field, verevkin /

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