A (climate)ritual is worth a thousand words

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return
April 6, 2023 by
Deborah de Koning

As the headlights of a coal train cast a piercing glance across the tracks, a group of some 40 people bravely crossed the tracks with their belongings on Ash Wednesday (February 22, 2023). Most people did not come empty-handed. Some, in the tradition of Kappen met Kolen - an organization that blocks at least one train every month to express their displeasure with the use of fossil fuels - made a small cardboard protest sign: 'Act now - Quit Coal' (see Figure 1). I myself had drawn a rainbow the night before with my three-year-old daughter on a pink paper with the text accompanying it, "winning coal = losing the earth”. In addition to the usual protest signs, banners and homemade vegan layered cake, ritual objects came along this time: an antique potato bucket that will serve as a fire pit, dried palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday, and a bowl to mix ashes with oil so they can be applied to the foreheads or hands of attendees.[i]


Figure 1: Climate activist J. Hermsen with ash cross on his forehead blocks the train by sitting on the track. Photo taken by Deborah de Koning, A​msterdam, April 22, 2023.

The celebration begins with an introduction of the theme "Earth": we celebrate being earth and returning to earth. The next element begins a bit uncomfortably: it is the first time Ash Wednesday is celebrated on/next to a track and some participants are participating in a climate action for the first time. After a brief welcome, a sound amplifier comes on and we are invited to move with our bodies to the music "earth my body, water my blood, air my breath, fire my spirit”. Some of the participants are completely absorbed, while others look forward to the quieter parts of the liturgy such as the scripture reading from Isaiah 58: 1-12. Other elements of the liturgy include a reflection based on the work of Kenyan environmental and political activist Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, a resistance litany, some Taizé songs, a climate song (bella ciao) and an ecological our father/mother by Cláudio Carvalhaes (Carvalhaes "Ecological Lords Prayer").

As we approach the end of the liturgy, something happens - perhaps the climax of the liturgy - that I want to elaborate on in this blog: the "imposition" of an Ash Cross. In the antique potato bucket, last year's palm branches (donated by an abbey) are lit. A pastor from Amsterdam pronounces the blessing over the ashes, emphasizing that we return to the dust of the earth. Then the ashes are mixed with oil and she goes around drawing ash crosses on people's foreheads with her finger (those who don't want to are instructed to cross their arms in front of their chest). In doing so, she utters a variation of the familiar words "earth are you, to earth do you return. Both those sent to the parking lot by the police (a "sanctuary" from being arrested) and those on the railroad tracks (where they also "celebrate") receive an Ash Cross.

Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent which precedes Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 46 days before Easter - Sundays are not included in the count to arrive at 40 days. Catholics receive the ash cross on that day during the Eucharist. The palm branches or other blessed branches from the previous year are blessed (within Catholic tradition this may only be done by a bishop or priest) and a deacon, bishop or priest lays the ashes. The blessing and imposition of the ashes can also take place outside of the Eucharist. However, it is recommended that a celebration of the Word precedes it. The ritual is about the realization of a penitent heart. Man acknowledges his own frailty and mortality (National Council for Liturgy "Ash Wednesday").


Figure 2: invitation to the Ash Wednesday celebration on the railroad tracks in Amsterdam. https://noelhuis.nl/aswoensdag-2023-kappen-met-kolen/ (accessed March 31, 2023)

The combination of penitence and mortality, is central to the invitation to this Ash Wednesday celebration (see Figure 2) which was a joint initiative of Christian Climate Action and Kappen met Kolen and in which residents of the Noël House in Amsterdam made significant contributions. Penance has also become a central element in the Protestant celebration of Ash Wednesday. Whereas Ash Wednesday in our country was previously celebrated mainly by Catholics, now other churches seem to be increasingly showing an interest in this ritual. In the Protestant liturgy of the Ash Wednesday celebration, it is indicated that the one who impose the ashes can choose from the following words: "Repent and believe the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."(Theologie.nl "Ash Wednesday"). The first text - the emphasis on penitence - has come to predominate in many current liturgies (Sweeney 2010, 28). But the utterance of Genesis 3:19 (dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return) has a long tradition. According to Christian tradition, this text is said to have been spoken by God before man had to leave paradise as punishment for sin (Rijken 2023). Atonement is therefore still a central element in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and often there is a reading from the Book of Joel in which a call for fasting and repentance is made to avert impending doom. 

Genesis 3:19 seems to gain new momentum in the context of the current climate crisis. Moreover, in the early stages of the institutionalization of the ritual of Ash Wednesday (circa 9th century), the connection of ashes was also strongly related to the element of earth; the earth who was respected and depended on in daily life (Sweeney 2010, 83). This year, the ritual of Ash Wednesday at a coal spur near Amsterdam Sloterdijk became a climate ritual, but also in London, clergy of the Anglican Church, together with Christian Climate Action, have celebrated Ash Wednesday outdoors in several places as a protest against the West Crumbia coal mine (Extinction Rebellion "Church of England"). And although Sylvia Sweeney does not come up with specific examples of Ash Wednesday celebrations, she points out the "richness" of this ritual for eco-feminists through its focus on mortality: the ritual of Ash Wednesday creates the opportunity for eco-feminists to critically scrutinize the dualisms between the human and the natural world (dominant in patriarchal societies), the spiritual and the physical, the temporal and the eternal, and, in contrast, to emphasize the embodiment of the human as rooted in nature (Sweeney 2010, 168).

The unique aspect of the Ash Wednesday celebration is that the ritual brings man and earth together in one fell swoop. Christian eco-theological books regularly give a glimpse of how we can see the (disturbed) relationship between man and the earth. For example, in Groen en Solidair, Tjirk van der Ziel writes about "stewardship": 'In the Genesis story, man does not become man until there are two people, man (isj) and woman (isja). That man (Adam) in turn is in relation to the earth from which he sprang (adamah), and to the Creator as his image and likeness. In short, the world does not revolve around us, but we stand in relation to our environment and to that which transcends us.' (Van der Ziel 2022, 131). And Trees van Montfoort in Groene Theologie: 'We are creatures sprung from the earth, and like animals and plants precious in God's eyes' and 'God creates and saves the whole earth, of which humans are an important part (Van Montfoort 2020, 141, 255). Tentative attempts are made to see humans theologically as integral parts of creation, nature or the earth. But one or two pages on, our human language often seems to be too limiting again. 'We' (humans) have to take care of the earth, we have to take responsibility toward the earth. Man is always the subject, the earth the object. And what I sometimes hear among climate activists inspired by Eastern religions, namely, 'I am the earth,' seems to be a few miles too far within Christian eco-theology. 

Figure 3: Part of the liturgy of the Ash Wednesday celebration with the burning of the palm branches in the background. Photo taken by Deborah de Koning, Amsterdam, April 22, 2023.

How is man's oneness with the earth now realized in this ritual? The Ash Wednesday ritual does something that words cannot do. Jan Koster states about rituals, among other things, that they differ from language because rituals are primarily about the human experience of identity in which emotions are addressed (Koster 2003, 211). Tineke Nugteren writes about the aesthetic, emotional, physical and sensory experiences that rituals evoke (Nugteren 2013, 56). Receiving the ashes and sitting on the track allow participants to sensually experience their oneness with the earth. The ashes connect to the body and penetrate the pores. Participants become aware of their impermanence - they also see the branches being burned in the bucket (see Figure 3) - and (therefore) the impermanence they share with the earth. The physical embodiment of this becomes even more concrete during the celebration for those who sit on the railroad tracks in an act of disobedience to stop fossil fuel extraction: their bodies touch the broken branches and dry leaves among the tracks. For the seventeen people arrested, the celebration continues in jail. One of the co-organizers who was himself arrested emphasized that those who were arrested are exposing themselves to persecution just like Jesus (informal conversation, April 4, 2023). Having oneself non-violently led away to an arrestee bus at the beginning of Lent is an intense sensory and meaningful experience that not only ritually connects man and earth; by reinterpreting (and actually performing) central events and rituals from Christianity, this Ash Wednesday celebration uniquely connects earth, man and religion.

While the detainees are taken away, the train moves on. The ash cross on the forehead also fades in the course of the day: but the experience of the ritual remains. The experiential dimension of the ritual, is written like an imperishable mark on the foreheads of the climate activists.


Carvalhaes, C. ‘Ecological Lords Prayer’. https://www.claudiocarvalhaes.com/ 10 June 2021. https://www.claudiocarvalhaes.com/blog/ecological-lords-prayer-claudio-carvalhaes/ (accessed on 31 March 2023).

Extinction Rebellion. ‘Church of England Clergy lead Christian Climate Action in Ash Wednesday call to cut the ties with West Cumbria coal mine.’ 22 februari 2023. https://extinctionrebellion.uk/2023/02/22/church-of-england-clergy-lead-christian-climate-action-in-ash-wednesday-call-to-cut-the-ties-with-west-cumbria-coal-mine/ (accessed on 31 March 2023).

Informal conversation co-organizer Ash Wednesday Celebration, 4 April 2023.

Koster, J. (2003). Ritual Performance and the Politics of Identity: On the Functions and Uses of Ritual. Journal of Historical Pragmatics4(2), 211–248 https://doi.org/10.1075/jhp.4.2.05kos.

Nationale Raad voor Liturgie. ‘Aswoensdag’. Rkliturgie.nl. https://rkliturgie.nl/liturgische-catechese/aswoensdag (accessed on 31 March 2023).

Nugteren, A. (2013). Sensing the 'Sacred'? Body, Senses and Intersensoriality in the Academic Study of Ritual. Jaarboek Voor Liturgie-Onderzoek (Vol. 29), 49-65.

Rijken, H. (19 februari 2023). ‘Aswoensdag: Van Palmtakje tot Kruis.’ Theologie.nl https://www.theologie.nl/blogs/aswoensdag-van-palmtakje-tot-kruis/ (accessed on 31 March 2023).

Sweeney, S. A. (2010). An Ecofeminist Perspective on Ash Wednesday and Lent. Peter Lang.

Theologie.nl. ‘Aswoensdag.’ https://www.theologie.nl/app/uploads/pw-assets/183209-7798.docx (accessed on 31 March 2023).

Van der Ziel, T. (2022). ‘Rentmeesterschap – worstelen met een weerbarstige term.’ In Hense, E. & Van der Ziel, T. (eds.). Groen en Solidair: 36 Kerken en Kloosters in Nederland. Berne Media, 128-131.

Van Montfoort, T. (2020). Groene Theologie. Skandalon.


[i] Sometimes the ashes are mixed with water, but presumably this was oil, so the ashes actually "stick" well. The extent to which this Ash Wednesday celebration is a climate ritual will be discussed at greater length in my article "Earth and Dirt: The Relevance of Embodiment and Emplacement for the Transformation of Ash Wednesday into a Climate Ritual.

Deborah de Koning April 6, 2023
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