Ash Wednesday, Rite of Purification

“My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it.”

(The Odes of Solomon)

In the early Pre-Constantine church there was an Ash Wednesday service practiced which was no doubt became modified and used in the later Orthodox Church. As the ashes were imposed on the forehead of the receiver the priest would utter the words, “Remember, Thou, O soul, that thy body is dust and unto dust it shall return.” This is in contrast from the later church utterance, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

How is it different? The earlier affirmation denoted a release from the body, our conventional identification. The latter one, modified by the Constantine church, emphasizes our identification with the body. The earlier church affirmation saw the body in the way St. Francis of Assisi described it; as the donkey upon which he rode similar to Mary and to Jesus on the day of his triumphant entry. The earlier one gives the idea of liberation and freedom while the latter gives the connotation of bondage to guilt and shame. Over the past several years I have chosen to identify with the earlier church affirmation.

If then we are not our bodies but in essence the Sons and Daughters of God, or the Christ within, the season of Lent can become a time of renewing this awareness. We can disengage from distracting attachments to the body by the simple exercise of becoming quiet and listening to our body’s sensations. We thus become more aware of their constant cravings with its many “monkey-mind” wanderings. During such exercises we do not judge these wanderings but simply become aware of their presence and our tendency to follow them.

Another simple technique of becoming more aware is to sit or walk in awareness, coming to the place called “still point.” Here we become more deeply conscious of ourselves, the thinker as the observer of the body within the outside material, ephemeral world.

This teaching and practice is in contrast to much of the traditional church teaching of the body being our “real” identification. The traditional church has taught the Spirit as only something we occasionally experience by invoking its presence, usually by making a “correct confession.” The body in traditional church understanding is something that dies but then will be raised at the “coming of the Lord.” The traditional church criticizes earlier church options as not promoting a true afterlife in heaven. Actually it is just the opposite; the awareness of the Christ Self becomes an introduction and experience of eternal life within the present, within this mortal life. It is not escapism but a way of thinking how one can live without fear, guilt, and shame.

Thus the sign of the ashes can become a rite of purification in which the recipient seeks to find renewal in traditional or new ways of giving up false attachments. One might chose to spend time reflecting on ways he or she is kept from experiencing the liberating joy of the inner spirit. The season of Lent could be a time of renewal in disciplines of meditation and daily remembrances. The season of Lent could be seen not as a time of denying simple pleasures of life but as the enhancement of them in living with more consciousness of our Other Self. The Lenten season could be seen as a time of pruning the flower so blossoms of Light and Life can recur with the coming of spring. “My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up!” (From the “Odes of Solomon”)

The ashes in ancient history also symbolized the sign of the fiery spirit within. The early Jewish writings in the Kabbalah described the souls of saints as “Ashim” or “fiery ones.” They are a reminder of that within which burns with passion, excitement and love of life. It includes fasting in the desert as part of a vision quest in retouching the base of our Center.

The imposition of ashes is an aid in awakening anew to one’s Self knowledge. Knowing this Self helps us to overcome addictive attachments as we become awakened to the Fiery Being of the Incorruptible Light of Christ within.

“Remember, Thou, O soul, that thy body is dust and unto dust it shall return!”


Ideas amplified from a sermon by Rev. Steven Marshall titled, “A Homily for Ash Wednesday.” A complete copy of this complete homily can be read at:

About David Persons

Retired minister who still writes, speaks some, hikes less, and golfs.
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