Why Joy on Ash Wednesday?



“Christian joy is not happiness. It doesn’t even necessarily bring you happiness. It just overwhelms you.”  Matt Fitzgerald [1]

 “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Psalm 51

“Jesus appears in the desert as the representative of the human race. He bears within himself the experience of the human predicament in its raw intensity. Hence, he is vulnerable to the temptations [and yet shows us how to confront them].”
— Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ

Why “joy” on Ash Wednesday in the face of global environmental degradation, an imperiled democracy, acute suffering from disaster, disease, war and the despair of inconsolable grief?    Why joy when, “you are dust, and to dust, you will return,” [2] is solemnly intoned as the sign of the cross is inscribed upon your forehead?

Some years ago and while undergoing training for the ministry at a local hospital, I wondered if I carry on.  Decent and God-fearing people whom I hoped would recover, could not.   Previously intact families unraveled in the painful cycle of futility and grief.   And those who should not have died – children, teenagers, young adults, parents, and vital elders – did.

There was no sense of justice.   No reward provided for those whose labor and devotion had been poured out for others.   No answers could be found when sitting at the bedsides of those who suffered.   Scared, I wondered if could be there for them at the end – their end – because I acutely felt my own end too.

Later that week and while driving, I happened to pass a cemetery.  It was fall, and its entire grounds were covered with fall leaves.  Sitting next to me, was our four-year-old son.

Catching sight of the leaf-covered graveyard, our youngest son made it clear that he wanted to go and visit those grounds.  Though usually a pretty easy going kid, that morning he made such a fuss I caved in.  Driving our car through the cemetery entrance, we pulled up to an area densely covered with gravestones.

Bolting out of the vehicle and filled with childhood delight, our youngest proceeded to run along the gravestones, patting the top of each one as if playing a game.  I, however, was terrified.   This was the last place I wanted to be.   Running after our youngest, I began shouting, “Can’t we just go home now?”   But it was no use.   He just ran faster.

Wrote the psalmist when overcome with futility, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”   It was not happiness or bliss or even contentment that the writer of this ancient text was seeking.   Instead and as Matt Fitzgerald writes,

“But joy is like Christ. Joy arrives on its own terms. It turns tables over and leaves you gasping in its aftermath. Happiness and joy are different, not mutually exclusive.” [3]

When at last I caught up with my son, he was breathless, squirming and ablaze with delight.   Though overcome with anxiety – when dropping to the ground to hold him – I was surprised by joy. [4]   No, it wasn’t happiness or bliss or even contentment.  Instead, it was an intoxicating sweetness, an indescribable quietude that seized me.  Joy had arrived at last, but it was on its own terms.   Overwhelmed but profoundly grateful, I picked up our son and headed back to the car.


[1] Matt Fitzgerald, Five times a day, the WeCroak app reminds me that I’m going to die, (Christian Century Magazine, October 24, 2018)  I am indebted to Matt Fitzgerald for his own recollection facing death, and the influence of his young family.

[2] From Genesis 3:19.  On Ash Wednesday these words are commonly invoked while the sign of the cross is gently etched upon one’s forehead.

[3] Ibid. Matt Fitzgerald.

[4] Surprised by Joy, is the title of C.S. Lewis’ classic on his conversion into the Christian faith.






Author: Jessica McArdle

These are dark and corrosive times. As a writer and ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, I use prayer, poetry, reflection, and scripture to re-align our embattled spirits with the uniqueness and urgency of our God-given identity and call.

4 thoughts on “Why Joy on Ash Wednesday?”

  1. Thank you for your story of joy, Jessica. It is a sweet blessing to feel it in my bones with you.

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