Acton Institute Powerblog

Of Ashes and Detachment

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In the liturgical calendar of the Western churches, today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season. Christians around the world will attend services today that feature the imposition of ashes. These ashes represent, among other things, the transience and contingency of created being. Thus, for instance, the Book of Common Prayer contains the following prayer to be said before the imposition:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

A related practice common among laypeople is the abstention from a particular item or practice during the Lenten season. Some people give up caffeine or tobacco. Others might choose to refrain from going to movies or watching television. When done in appropriate fashion this practice is a spiritual exercise that serves to reorient the priorities of the Christian life.

That is, the goods of this world can only be appropriately appreciated and loved when they are properly subsumed under our ultimate allegiance and commitment to God. In this Lenten practice something that is otherwise morally permissible is eschewed. In some small way this can be seen as an attempt at a popular level to realize the monastic ideal of detachment. John Climacus articulated the reality of detachment by saying, “If a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself.”

So, in this season of Lent, let us remember and consider the words of Jesus Christ:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Laurie

    I have come to look forward to Ash Wednesday for many reasons. The first of which is that, for at least a day, I have a very public sign on my forehead that I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It may or may not be noticed or talked about during the day, but to me it is a physical recognition of what I believe very deeply on the inside. I relish the opportunity to be what Paul says; “we are ambassadors for Christ ….as we work together with Him.”

    The ashes certainly represent that we are all made from the dust of the earth and that is where we shall all return. It calls us to repentance for the sins we have committed against God and against one another. But it also has a much deeper meaning. It represents the promise of the resurrection and the great Easter Mystery: death becoming birth.

    The fasting and almsgiving is an exercise in spiritual discipline that brings forth a renewed appreciation for the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. Going without even for a short time can give us a perspective of gratitude for all of God’s gifts. Gifts that are given freely everyday that we may often times overlook. With that renewed apprecitation we can then give more freely of ourselves to others.