The existentialist explanation of lent or why Catholics don’t wash their faces on Ash Wednesday

The Existentialist Explanation of Lent or, Why Catholics Don’t Wash Their Faces on Ash Wednesday

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people. (Joel 2:15-18)

This reading was the first one from the Ash Wednesday Mass. I have heard it at least once every three years, yet I was stunned to discover it was from a book called Joel (a book previously unknown to me until I looked the reading up for this article. Alas, I would have made a lousy Protestant. Catholics aren’t exactly known for spouting off book and verse of the Bible.) Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent: Forty weeks of identifying that no one gets out of this life alive.

Ash Wednesday is the day when most practicing Catholics go to church, get ashes on their foreheads and spend the rest of the day explaining to people that the smudge of dirt on their face is supposed to be there. As a kid, I used to love getting ashes. It was a special day when I could spot (pardon the pun) all practicing Catholics in my community. The nuns encouraged (read,: bribed) us to go to daily Mass by offering a hot chocolate ticket for any child who attended Mass during Lent. (We had very cool nuns.) It was the annual ritual of denying ourselves candy, chocolate, or fights with our siblings in order to hone our skills as penitents. Abstinence from chocolate candy was my go-to choice. (I did not equate this to the hot chocolate drink though.) I had far too many siblings to avoid fights, and giving up chocolate was easy once I got used to avoiding it.

As a teen, I dreaded Ash Wednesday because it made me stand out. The spot on my forehead usually prompted point-and-laugh behavior from others. The questions about why Catholics did such silly things were inevitable. Being the only Catholic in my peer group meant I was the only one to explain the tradition. The cool kids usually washed off their faces before they went to school.

As an adult student of existentialist psychology, I have a renewed appreciation for the annual practice. In fact, I believe Rollo May might have liked Ash Wednesday. The goal of Ash Wednesday is to recognize the fleeting nature of this life, the importance of changing oneself, and living up to our intended purpose (a.k.a., the Will of God.) The reading demonstrates the urgency this concept has on us. It demands immediate attention. Joel believed there was simply no time to waste.

Lenten practices are not new for the Christian community. It is believed they were first referenced by St. Athanasius in a letter to the Christians of Alexandria, Egypt in 331 C.E. when he urged his parishioners to keep a 40-day fast “like our Forefathers” (apostles) in anticipation of the celebration of the Pascha, (Marshall, 2014) the Greek term for the Hebrew pesach, or Passover. (The term “Easter” did not make it into the vernacular until after Martin Luther used the German word oster for resurrection when he translated the Vulgate [Latin] Bible into German. It gets more convoluted from there, with subsequent translations using the word ester, but I will leave that for another day.)

Even pagans have been recorded as having the practice of fasting, as referenced in the Sahih Bukhari (1:3:128), which explains how the Muslim Ramadan celebration began to include fasting. Fasting and ashes have a sound basis in Judaic practices as well. To deny oneself food may not seem like a big deal in this era of self-imposed starvation diets, but one simply cannot deny the fashion faux pas that is produced from wearing sackcloths and ashes, as Joel urged the Ancient Hebrews to do.

To deny oneself the vanity of appearance is the equivalent of wearing no makeup for a non-Catholic woman or ashes that mark the foreheads of Catholics on Ash Wednesday. In other words, we weren’t the first to think of the idea. If so many different religious traditions practice an annual form of self-denial, it would seem there may be a good reason. It appears to be a practice that emerged years before existential philosophy, but the reason for doing so and the influence of sin on humankind did not escape Kierkegaard (1844) in his book The Concept of Dread.
During the imposition of ashes, Catholics are reminded that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

Talk about facing the dread of existence! The stark reality cannot be ignored. To focus on living a life as though we shall never die is a waste of time. Ash Wednesday is the equivalent of what May (1950) described as “facing the fact of death and other aspects of the contingency of existence, and from this Angst der Keatur one learns how to interpret the reality of one’s human situation” (May, 1950, p. 44). Sin, as Kierkegaard called it, is nothing more than the flaw within our character that prevents us from maturing (Kierkegaard, 1844). It is precisely in confronting this anxiety of our inevitable death, or the consequence of sin to Christians, that we are forced into change, which helps our core person, mature and grow. By facing our sin, or human flaw, we have a new opportunity for an authentic life.

So, Catholics walk to the altar, hear the words that remind us we must face death and receive the ashes of the ancients. This, oddly, marks the hopeful beginning of our Lenten journey. During the journey, we voluntarily create our own conflict in order to challenge our resolve and become better people. Can we refuse that slice of chocolate cake? Can we walk past the bottle of wine screaming our name after a difficult day? (Abstinence from alcohol was my grandmother’s favorite Lenten sacrifice.) The challenge to increase our resolve and the anxiety it produces helps to improve our ability to make unselfish choices. To tell ourselves no, simply because we promised we would abstain, strengthens our resolve. Each effort makes us stronger.

The freedom that comes with self-denial, or in my case, avoiding chocolate, is more than simply the ability to say I made it six weeks without a taste of chocolate passing my lips. It is the ability to look at a goal, recognize the challenge, and accept it. It is the acknowledgment that I am a flawed human being that can fail at times…sometimes, a LOT. However, the courage and determination it takes to oppose the temptation over and over is exactly what allows a person to build up strength. With the freedom comes a responsibility to myself.

In other words, each time a person is confronted with the temptation, whether it is chocolate, alcohol, or drugs, that person is forced to face her inner self. We die to the illusion that we are perfect human beings. Kierkegaard’s understanding of this was highlighted when he used the word sin (Kierkegaard, 1844). No matter what religion you espouse, we all seem to struggle with the idea of thinking we are perfect, as opposed to actually being perfect. Kierkegaard’s concept of dread or May’s concept of anxiety is the difference between the two. It is the reality check.

Seeing oneself authentically can be the freedom mentioned by Kierkegaard. We become open to change and improvement because we can see ourselves, warts and all, and realize we need to change. As hard as it is to admit, I have struggled with my love of food. I would rather be able to acknowledge this fact than live with the delusion of having perfect control of my dietary choices. Aside from being nearly impossible to explain my girth, it frees me to find my real self. I mature in the process.

This conversation came up with a friend of mine. He struggled with substance abuse and, each time he weakened, he felt he was a failure. Shame often set in, discouraging him from getting back on the horse (or wagon.) He was also a Catholic, so I reminded him that we learned this lesson with Lent. The goal isn’t to get it perfect the first time out of the gate, but to get it right eventually over time with perseverance. (This also explains why some Catholics give up the same thing each Lent.) It may seem to be a small detail, but it was one that allowed him to forgive his own weaknesses and try again. It is not about reaching the summit. It is about the challenge of continuing the climb, even when you slip and fall.

The Lenten fast is a Catholic Existentialist’s answer for confronting ourselves. With each challenge, we acknowledge death as inevitable, choose to self-deny in which we learn the value of perseverance and humility. We see our true selves, recognize a need for improvement to become that which was intended by our Creator (or YHWH, Allah, the Universe, fill in the blank) and struggle against ourselves to be a better human being to the rest of humanity. Additionally, Catholics are urged to do works of charity and love others. (However, I assume acts of kindness are not exclusive to Catholics!)

Perhaps non-Catholic Existentialists might like to join us in our Lenten journey. While it is far from a panacea to all problems, it can demonstrate a real appreciation for the philosophy of Kierkegaard and May, even if it began long before they published their works. It can also bond us in mutual solidarity at a time when being a better human being is desperately needed.

But please, be a friend and do NOT offer me any chocolate over the next six weeks!

Kierkegaard, S. (1844). The concept of dread. (W. Lowrie, Trans.) Copenhage: Bianco Lugo’s Press.

Marshall, T. (2014, March 3). Did the Blessed Virgin Mary keep Lent? Did the Apostles keep Lent? Retrieved from Taylor Marshall PhD:

May, R. (1950). The meaning of anxiety. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

— Maria Taheny

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