Ash Wednesday Lessons From Genesis

On this Ash Wednesday, we are invited into a deeper relationship with God by denying ourselves a few simple pleasures like a bowl of stew. It’s good that we go without legitimate pleasures for the sake of retraining our souls and undoing our attachment to the things of this world.

Genesis is filled with great stories that offer profound spiritual advice, but have you ever considered what insights these stories may offer us for the season of Lent? In both the story of Lot and the story of Esau, there are Lenten messages that can be easily overlooked.

In the story of Lot, we are reminded of the way God calls us to conversion during Lent. God told Lot to leave Sodom and Gomorrah in ashes, and start a new life. He lingered, as we all do in trying to hold onto the remnants of a past life. But Scripture says that out of compassion the Lord saved him, and led him away from the city (Gen 19:16). In the Lord’s invitation to us each Lent, he offers us the same hand of compassion.

The story of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah is well known, but there is a less observed small detail about Lot that is applicable to our lives today. When Lot is delivered by the two angels, the text tells us that Lot “lingered” (Gen 19:16). He is leaving Sodom, but yet lingers — perhaps still attached to an old life.  It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s line in the midst of his conversion: “Lord make me chaste, just not yet.”

Then the text tells us that the Lord “seized” him — “the Lord being merciful” (v. 16). That is, in the midst of Lot’s pining back for an old life—in the midst of his lingering—the Lord carried him forward.

How often do we “linger” in moments of conversion. And if we’re honest when we look back, we often realize that the Lord “seized” us and carried us forward — the Lord being merciful — empowering us to do what we couldn’t do on our own.

The tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is not just about the past; it’s also about the present — how we’re often stuck between two cities, the city of God and the city of man; and often we “linger” between the two. And when we look back at moments of conversion, they are moments of grace, where the Lord propelled us in the right direction with a power beyond our strength — “the Lord being merciful.”

The story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob is also well known (Gen 25:27-34). Esau comes in from hunting and feels famished; Jacob has some stew ready at hand. For the sake of his passions, he sells his birthright. The birthright and the blessing in Genesis are not incidental matters; they are real and substantial. And while Jacob is duplicitous here and elsewhere, the text tells us that Esau also bears some of the blame, concluding the story this way: “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34).

Esau’s story is a reminder of the pearl of great price that we forfeit when we choose to satisfy our appetites instead of doing the will of God.  It’s easy to look down upon Esau in this story; after all, how could he sell his birthright for a pot of stew? But how often do we not appreciate the grandeur we’ve been given in Christ, as sons and daughters of God through our Baptism?

In mortal sin, we imitate the pattern of Esau: we forfeit our true dignity as children of God — our birthright — for a momentary pleasure. In these moments, we are neglecting the unsurpassable gift we’ve been given; and when we neglect the divine life within us, it tends to wither up and die.

How can we be more fully attentive today to the majesty of our salvation in Christ? For “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

The ashes on our forehead today symbolize how our lives shouldn’t look the same as the secular world; we are pilgrims on a journey; and every Lent, we remember that we are not yet home — and getting “home” means going through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, through the Cross and rising to new life in and through his Resurrection.

As St. Benedict says of the monk’s life, our lives should be a continual Lent. This certainly does not exclude joy; but it means that our lives are a continual work of transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit.

Where are we “lingering” in our old life and holding back in our conversion to Christ? How can we embrace God’s mercy? How can we let him make up for what we lack and surrender our inadequacies to him?


Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.