Day 1, Ash Wednesday: Standing on Ashes

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Today’s Mass Readings

Repentance is a discipline Americans have never been good at practicing.

Pictured: wood ashes. Click on the image for the day’s readings.

Our country was built on the backs of slaves, built on land belonging to Native Americans, built by conquest, and conquest rarely happens without violence. We burned this country into existence, forged it from fire, nourished it with blood. Our nation stands on ashes.

Ashes are the symbol of our repentance. We walk into a church, we repent to God, we ask to be cleansed of our individual sins. This is a private discipline, for a moment turned collective. It is a community, walking together, asking to be forgiven.

But the America our church is part of never repented, never got down on its knees, never truly walked in community. Our sin multiplies. Incarceration. Police brutality. Gentrification. Sin in the courtrooms, sin on the streets, sin in classrooms, real estate offices, living rooms. What if these ashes were the ashes of repentance for our country’s sins? Our church’s sins? Our own?

These are the ashes of Trayvon Martin.

These are the ashes of Martin Luther King.

These are the ashes of millions of Native Americans.

These are the ashes of the Middle Passage.

These are the ashes that remind us we must repent, every day, together.

These are the ashes that remind us: now is a very acceptable time to begin.

Reflection Questions:

  • What does it mean to repent for the sins of the past today?
  • Our own past sins?
  • Our country’s?
18 replies
  1. Jim Sorensen
    Jim Sorensen says:

    We, in the Southwestern Texas Synod of the ELCA, are just now starting a task force on racism. I am disappointed that it has taken so long to address this topic in some formal manner. But, it is now an attempt at redemption. Pray that we might make a difference in reforming our church body.

    • nliao
      nliao says:

      Encouraged to hear about the good work of the ELCA, Jim. Thanks for sharing, and for being a part of the conversation.

      – ISN

  2. Aleidra Allen
    Aleidra Allen says:

    Repenting for the sins of the past today means confessing them as wrong and turning from committing them in the future (or at least trying to…knowing that we all fall short). In the confession of the sins comes acknowledgment of them, as well; acknowledging that we were wrong, which is difficult for many. Many people do not want to acknowledge the role that this country- or even more specifically, white people- played in the injustices and oppression that still exists today. And with that acknowledgement, we also have to acknowledge the consequences and implications of our sins. We cannot just confess the sins and then do nothing about all the wrong that currently still exists in America because of them. We have to take the next step and act, and work to dismantle the injustices and systematic oppression that was created from our sins. I really enjoyed this reflection.

    • nliao
      nliao says:

      Aleidra: Grateful for your words. Thanks for reminding us to pursue concrete ways of turning away from the sin of racism, both collectively and individually. We hope this ongoing conversation will produce that kind of imagination.


  3. Emily Robinson
    Emily Robinson says:

    – What does it mean to repent for the sins of the past today?
    – Our own past sins?
    – Our country’s?

    My first thought in answer to these questions is, “I don’t know.” But I also know that that’s not good enough. I work in a Community Health Clinic in Tacoma, WA as a Nurse Practitioner. Most of my patients are victims of our nation’s and our world’s sins. Many have recently been released from prison, and many have stories of abuse, neglect and addiction. “I don’t know” isn’t good enough.

    I remember noticing that my interactions with patients of color were different than my interactions with white people a few years ago when I was still in graduate school. There was one patient in particular, a middle-aged black man, who brought this reality to the surface for me. During our 20-minute visit I could not figure out why I couldn’t get him to say what he wanted. There were so many disclaimers in both his verbal and non-verbal communication, and his statements were oozing with an air of apology. As a student, I gave report to my supervising healthcare provider and shared about my experience in hopes that she might have some insight or wisdom to offer. Her response was to explain my experience by labeling this man a “seeker of pain meds.” While that explanation made things easy for her, it felt wrong, and somehow dirty. I felt dirty.

    So for me, repentance today means not making those moments easy. It means sitting in the discomfort and filth of those moments. It means struggling with my power as a white, educated woman. It means recognizing and wrestling with the position of power I have as a healthcare provider. And it means listening. It means hearing the brokenness in the stories of my patients and accepting that the stories are messy. It means fighting the urge to tidy up the stories I hear so that I can go home feeling good.

    As I go through my day seeing patient after patient and hearing their stories, I will listen. My prayer is that there is space for healing in the hearing of the stories, and in the acknowledgment of the sins that are woven therein. I pray that as I remember the sins of my country’s and my community’s past, and witness the continuation of those sins, the ashes of repentance would cover me, cover us.

    • Nicholas Liao
      Nicholas Liao says:

      Emily: Thanks for sharing your powerful story, and for your commitment to stay engaged despite the messiness. We hope others will receive this series as an invitation to do so as well. Appreciate your wise words.


  4. Nancy Sherman
    Nancy Sherman says:

    Thank you for this powerfully written piece and for assuring us – and, we all need assurance and the confidence to act in courageous ways – that “now is a very acceptable time to begin” with the essential work of practicing repentance. An excellent and inspiring reflection and motivation to action.

  5. Anne Smith
    Anne Smith says:

    repentance –
    a change of heart and mind

    shedding ignorance of
    white privilege rooted in
    brutality and deception

    shedding excuses that
    my ancestors did not
    own slaves or
    exterminate or displace
    the first peoples

    donning an awareness of
    the sins of my country that
    created and perpetuated
    white privilege and
    made this country
    a land of opportunity for
    my white ancestors

    donning a political awareness
    of systems that
    must change, that
    ignorance and complacence
    are sins of the privileged, that
    being a good person is
    not enough, that
    I must listen and
    I must not be silent.

  6. Margaret Gordon
    Margaret Gordon says:

    Glad this series is starting with such a strong reflection. Appreciate understanding of communal sin. So many ashes.

  7. KateO
    KateO says:

    So, it’s okay for me to begin – knowing that my efforts are never perfect? sometimes ethical? always – mostly always with the best of intention? At the Deaf Mass that I participate in we sign “Lord, accept our prayer” rather than receive – the word accept is used a great deal in the Deaf community – to express outrage, and also to say – fine…I accept you and what you just said…excited to follow this blog. Thanks! ~ Kate

    • Nicholas Liao
      Nicholas Liao says:


      Yes! As Emily put it so well in a previous comment, “the stories are messy.” All of us are on a journey. This series is meant to spark a conversation that will hopefully encourage that lifelong journey of listening and accompanying. Thanks for joining us.


  8. Dave DeGroot
    Dave DeGroot says:

    Our homily today reflected on changing our perspective and becoming less centered on ourselves by viewing the world with a new and different lens. I am appreciative of the lenses provided in the writings by Kristen Trudo (A Letter to My White Ignatian Family) & DNLee (“14 Reasons Why “Formation” is the Official Hype Track of Black Women in Academia,” – Scientific American Blog Network) and others who invite us, through their stories, to walk with them through the chaos and to work toward a better and full understanding of the roles and ultimate action that each of us must take for justice.

    • Nicholas Liao
      Nicholas Liao says:


      Thanks for these encouraging words, and for responding to the invitation! Grateful to have you along.


  9. Francine Hemauer
    Francine Hemauer says:

    I am in the midst of reading “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and have been so depressed and disgusted at all the injustice there is and has been., The cases he writes about happening in the late 80’s are so unbelievable to me. Then today comes this beautiful reflection on Repentance. I have read it numerous times and it is so true. Thank you for such a beautiful beginning.


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