Why Ash Wednesday holds the solution to life's chaos and unrest

Against the backdrop of an unseasonably mild Ash Wednesday morning in February of 1932, Bishop William Thomas Manning, the head of New York’s Episcopal diocese, was addressing the faithful inside the famed Trinity Church, the Gothic-spired brownstone building located at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street in lower Manhattan.

“The choice which confronts the world now is Christ or chaos,” he began. “It may be that in this world situation we are called to a choice which will affect our race for good or for evil for centuries to come. If Jesus is real to us we shall not rest content with economic injustices, race prejudice, war, slums or with corruption and wrongdoing in our municipal life.”

In attendance, that day for the traditional beginning of Lent, a 40-day Christian season of reflection and penitence leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday, were many of the city’s titans of industry. There were also ordinary people, most of whom were locked in the grip of the Great Depression.


It’s been almost 90 years since that Ash Wednesday service, and the world’s problems may seem very different in specificity and size.

Yet can anybody deny the chaotic nature of 21st-century culture? But what can a millennia-old ecclesiastical tradition of ashes bring to the current tumult?


The tradition of applying ashes to a Christian’s forehead in the sign of a cross to commemorate the beginning of Lent dates back to at least the 10th century, though both the Old and New Testaments contain references to ashes and sackcloth representing sin, sorrow and forms of repentance.

Sacred traditions should never be taken lightly, but the sight of people walking the streets in 2019 with smudges of ashes affixed to their foreheads may be a bit jarring to some, but beautifully and wonderfully so. That’s because in this increasingly secular age, the bold yet polite and quiet expression of one’s faith – and the very public yet humble admittance of one’s sinful nature – is precisely what’s necessary to confront the cultural “chaos” that the British-born clergyman was referencing.

The receiving of ashes is also a stark reminder of life’s earthly brevity and finiteness. That’s because as the minister applies the ashes to your forehead, the blessing contains the warning, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It would be easy to lament the fact that humility, especially the acknowledgment of our own shortcomings, seems in short supply these days. From politicians to pundits and Fifth Avenue to Facebook, neither meekness nor modesty makes headlines much anymore. But the fact of the matter is that humility has always been a rare quality, noise has always made news – and culture has long been chaotic.

It’s also convenient to lay the blame for today’s chaos on any number of imperfect institutional entities or influential and high-profile individuals – government bureaucrats, political parties, outspoken politicians, judges, members of the media, Hollywood and even social media trolls.

All may play a role – but none a starring one.

At the core of the cultural crisis is man’s failure to recognize his role in it. That’s because the root of the chaos and unrest is me – and you – and our sin.

Ash Wednesday and Lent represent the bridge to the solution – to the Prince who brings peace to the disordered and chaotic world. If not for Jesus’ death on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, I would remain locked in the grip of chaos and wickedness rather than free to enjoy His grace.

Because we were incapable of saving ourselves from our own ways, Christians believe that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only son” to earth to save us from our sins. Jesus lived just 33 years, including 40 days of temptation in the desert – the event that inspired the liturgical season of sober reflection known as Lent.

The receiving of ashes is also a stark reminder of life’s earthly brevity and finiteness. That’s because as the minister applies the ashes to your forehead, the blessing contains the warning, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Translation: try as we may, nobody is getting out of here alive.


At the age of 83, Bishop Manning passed from this life to the next, 17 years following his Ash Wednesday sermon that laid out a person’s free choice between chaos and Christ. The diminutive but determined prelate is buried under a side altar at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, an architectural wonder and a construction project that consumed much of Manning’s quarter-century stint as bishop of New York.

More than 125 years since its dedication, the cathedral remains operational but technically still under construction - a work in progress much like any mortal man this side of eternity.