"Ash Wednesday, then, should be seen as standing guard over Lent, reminding us at its start of the core truth of Christianity: we must give up. We must give up not this or that habit or food or particular sin, but the entire project of self-justification, of making God’s love contingent on our own achievements. And the liturgy of this day goes right to the ultimate reality we struggle against, which is death itself. We are reminded, both by the words we say and the burned palms imposed on our foreheads, that we will die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Give up! Give up, for you will not escape death. The entire logic of the theology of glory, of all our Pelagian impulses, of all human attempts at mastery and control, are searched out and stripped away on Ash Wednesday. We are seen for what we are – frail mortals. All power, all money, all self-control, all striving, all efforts at reform cannot permanently forestall our death. Our return to dust is the looming fact of our existence that, in our resistance to it, provides a template of sorts for all the more petty efforts we make to gain control of our lives. [...]This is a beautiful, moving, personal and very insightful piece on the importance of Ash Wednesday in the tradition of Lent, and on the importance of the body and its death in the fullness of life. It is worth reading in full. My own journey out of a dualistic desire for escape from bodily life was also something of a via negativa through the prophet Nietzsche.
"Ash Wednesday is a day for the hopeless and suffering, who are affirmed in their hopelessness and suffering rather than commanded to take up the task of self-improvement. When we give up hope, hope in our own abilities and efforts and doing, then the reality of God’s grace truly can become manifest. It is the occasion for an affirmation of who we are, not, ultimately, a plea to transcend our mortal condition. We can live in our bodies, in this world, seeing ourselves more compassionately and thereby are moved to perform works of love, without conditions or demands, for our fellow-sufferers. The first day of Lent is an occasion not for a form of world-denial, but loving acceptance of flawed reality, of imperfection. It is a rebuke to all separatism, escapism, and self-hatred. And of course, as it points us to the Christ-event, Lent ends, as it beings, with an affirmation of our creaturely existence: as Christ rose from the dead, so will our bodies, to live in a New Jerusalem – not an ethereal 'heaven'."