The season of the church calendar called “Lent” is coming up soon. It starts on Ash Wednesday, which is Feb. 10th, this year. Many of the older “liturgical” traditions of Christianity have conducted specific services of repentance on this day, and the signature ritual is the imposition of ashes on the forehead of the people. You will often see people, afterwards, with small black crosses on their foreheads. Growing up as a Baptist in Mississippi, this was all very foreign to me, but it has become much more common over the years. Part of why it has become more common is that I’ve “gotten out”– I’ve lived in other places, met people from other traditions, and studied the history of the church. But it’s also becoming more common in “my circles” as well. Evangelicals, even those coming from the Reformed tradition, are starting to discover or recover historic church liturgy, and some are also practicing Lent and Ash Wednesday.
Our church here in Lakeland fits this category in many ways. We are very happily Reformed and Evangelical, but our worship style often strikes people as Lutheran or Anglican. As the pastor, I wear a white robe. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. We even follow the church’s liturgical calendar for key seasons of the year. But we don’t do Ash Wednesday.
I’d like to explain a little bit of why this is the case. I have participated in Ash Wednesday services as a layman in the past. I am not personally “spooked” by the practice. As I began to learn about the history of liturgy, I certainly did consider “recovering” Ash Wednesday, along with the other traditions that we do celebrate. I have even been asked, from time to time, why I don’t do Ash Wednesday. I do so much of the other stuff, why not this one?
The first point I always make is that I do think that Ash Wednesday and Lent fall in the category of “non-essentials.” There may be good things about them or bad things about them, and they may be pastorally wise or not-so-wise, but they are not absolutely sinful or absolutely righteous. I know that’s an uncomfortable category, but it is the mark of maturity be able to judge and apply such cases. I don’t think that folks who do Ash Wednesday are in sin, but I also don’t think there’s any reason that folks have to do Ash Wednesday. There are are lot of factors to consider.
Secondly, the practice of the imposition of ashes in the manner of today’s Ash Wednesday celebrations is old, but not that old. It dates back to Spain in the 10th century. It was quite localized at first, and it slowly caught on across Europe. This is still certainly “old” by today’s standards, but it is not actually ancient. Ash Wednesday is then not a tradition from “the early church,” and it is most definitely not apostolic. This is not a disqualification, but we should still be honest about it. Ash Wednesday is a liturgical development. If we retain it, we should do so based on its merits, not its antiquity. The history is also relevant because, at the time of the Reformation, Ash Wednesday would not have been particularly old at all, and most of the Reformers discontinued it. The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t even have an “Ash Wednesday” liturgy. Instead, they just used the generic penitential office for the beginning of Lent. I know that the Reformed Episcopalians allow the imposition of ashes “at the discretion of the minister,” and its celebration has varied among them according to time and location. It would be interesting to know the prevalence of the practice throughout Anglican history. The continental Reformed and the Lutherans, however, did not practice Ash Wednesday as a part of their liturgical tradition at all. Since I’m still very much Reformed, I take this seriously, and I don’t believe that a 10th century practice should necessarily have any “sway” over me. If you want to learn more about the history of all of this, the best introduction is still Thomas Talley’s Origins of the Liturgical Year.
Thirdly, there is a difference between having a particularly somber and penitential season of the year and instituting a unique ceremony in the worship service. I have no problem with keeping fast seasons and feast season and with marking the year by the life of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit. I think all of these things are perfectly good and within “the discretion” of the church. They don’t even contradict the Regulative Principle of Worship, despite what some grumpier types might say. This is because we have no divine instruction about what texts to use in the worship or which songs to sing. We get to choose those as we see fit. All of that stuff is what we might call “occasions” or “tools” for worship. So choosing to read texts about Jesus’ suffering and singing amazing hymns which bear open our hearts to the deepest of human emotions is all good if done in sincerity. We can even use physical objects to reinforce the message. At Christmas, we put out pine branches, and on Palm Sunday we give the children palm leaves. But that’s not actually adding a new element to worship. It’s just a matter of emphasis and aesthetic quality.
The imposition of ashes, however, is something different. It is a full-blown ritual, added to the normal service and filled with unique meaning. And this means, invariably, a unique theology. This is probably the most important, to my mind. Ash Wednesday is a unique worship ritual, but it lacks Scriptural precedent and is actually a fairly late historical development. I’m pretty skeptical of things like that. Again, I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily sin, but it strikes me as a bad idea that could turn into sin if you aren’t careful. I still do hold to a moderate version of the Regulative Principle, by the way, and I don’t add new elements to the worship during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, or Pentecost. So I’m not going to do so at Lent.
Fourth, whenever you deal with rituals, you should also ask the basic questions why you do them and what they means. These may seem like obvious questions when it comes to Ash Wednesday, but they actually aren’t. Why ashes? And how come they’re not full-blown ashes (as in the case of Ninevah) but rather a highly stylized form? Do they really convey the same meaning?
In fact, I’m not sure that adorning oneself in sackcloth and ashes would even have the same meaning in our world today. Perhaps it should, but I think it is plain that such an action in Biblical times was not a practice unique to Israel, but rather a mutually understood gesture of humiliation and abasement in the face of grief and penance. I don’t believe that Ash Wednesday really does this in our society. If it is understood at all, it is just another churchy thing, sort of like a sacrament, only, for whatever reason, not quite.
Additionally, Ash Wednesday is a symbol, not of the reality of penance, but of another symbol. Those earlier ashes which were put upon the head and which surrounded the body (2 Sam. 13:19, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8), they were a symbol of the internal state. But we aren’t doing that same ritual. We are doing a symbolic form of that ritual. Thus we are symbolizing the symbol of repentance. That doesn’t sit well with me. We should either do a full-blown symbol of repentance, one that is powerful and speaks to our world, or we shouldn’t do it at all.
Wouldn’t it be more to the point to dress in dark colors and carry ourselves with sobriety? Wouldn’t it be more effective to corporately renounce our appetites and desires? Simple and serious holiness would get people’s attention. They don’t see that too often, and when they do, the world recognizes it. Johnny Cash was special for exactly this reason; he was the man in black. We could wear shawls or black coats. We could shave our heads. These would be radical gestures that the world would notice and understand as signifying our self denial and grief over sin. But we don’t want all of that. We want a miniature symbol that fits within the otherwise not-very-dangerous theodrama. And I’m suspicious of that.
Finally, if you do practice Ash Wednesday, please don’t make a big to-do about it. Don’t tell us all about it on Facebook. Certainly don’t complain about it (Matt. 6:16)! And don’t treat it like some “cool” new trend that will make you more pious. Instead, let it be a time of personal prayer and worship. Let it be real. Truly put away your sins and mortify your flesh. Carry your cross in the pursuit of holiness after the image of Christ.