On Ash Wednesday, we are confronted by the inescapable frailty of human existence.

As we turn toward the chief penitential season of the Christian calendar, we are exhorted to number our days, to realize that death is the trumpet that wakes us from our contented slumber in the illusory confines of this life. From dust to dust—such is the ephemeral nature of this world.

In our meditations upon our imminent—that is, it could happen at any moment—death, we are also confronted with our basic isolation from God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Not only is it the absence of life, but it is the end of speaking and listening. In death, we slide into silence. It is the final barrier to human connection. It cannot be avoided—it can only be overcome.

But it can only be overcome when it is embraced. We fellowship with Jesus’ sufferings in order that we too might attain the resurrection from the dead. The solitary silence that approaches death enables us to experience the resurrection life—a life lived in and with the people of God. It is through death—in suffering, in weakness, in solitude—that the communion of saints begins. The brokenness of Jesus’ body is the birth of his people.

This is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.

It is the beginning of a season of penitence, a season of acknowledging the unwelcome intruder. It is a season of solitude, of silence, of fasting, and of prayer, that we may come to know the power of the Resurrection that we will soon celebrate. It is the beginning of a path to a new community formed by waiting for the Word of God to break through to our hearts and minds. The first movement of the people of God is always stillness and silence—we speak only after hearing.

As we fast on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that man lives not on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. While acknowledging the isolating power of death and repenting from the sin which its sting, we can begin to taste the power of the Resurrection, the love which binds us in holy communion.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.