Today is Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar; it marks a technical end to all the rousing debauchery of Carnival, Mardi Gras, and, here in Germany, Fastnacht. It marks the beginning of a day in which people wonder if I’m a Catholic; it marks a temporary end to sound, reflective understanding when it comes to Christian tradition and history. It marks the beginning of nervous eyes creeping up to my forehead and considering what kind of wayward, unbiblical act is being represented; it marks an unbeknownst end to the appreciation of symbolism in worship. It marks the beginning of a sacramental forty-day period of spiritual ascetism and followship of Christ; it marks the hopeful end of selfish indulgence and a life stunted by fear.
I began observing Ash Wednesday in 2005, when it was organized in the chapel of the small Baptist seminary where I went to school. I attended, but with certain reservations – mainly, I just wanted to see what this whole thing was about. What I discovered was a day of observance steeped in deep, powerful symbolism and authentic devotion, and I haven’t been absent from an Ash Wednesday service since. For a few years, I’ve even organized services myself when I’ve discovered there wouldn’t be one nearby.
In defense of what I feel to be a very important day in the Christian year, here are the top three questions I get asked most often about this day, and as comprehensive an answer as I can write without rambling too long on each:
#3 – “Aren’t you a Baptist? Isn’t Ash Wednesday a Catholic thing?”
First of all, it is important to remember that even if you cherish your particular denomination and its doctrines and preferences, Christians should never allow their denomination to define them or dictate the way in which they may express their devotion to God. If your denomination (or, more likely, your specific church community) is doing that, I suggest you make a break for it. Second of all, while the Catholic church does indeed observe Ash Wednesday, this feast day (as it is known in the Christian calendar) is in no way exclusive to Catholicism. There are many Protestant denominations that observe the day, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, not to mention many “non-denominational” congregations; it was in a Baptist seminary where I first attended a service. There is a pervasive misunderstanding in the Church that if something is steeped in tradition or was first practiced centuries ago, then it must be Catholic. We are even more misguided when we assume that these things must be unfounded or extra-biblical, as if anything that is ancient in practice is corrupt, or as if Catholicism has nothing worthwhile to offer “real” Christians. This is illogical, unreasonable folkism. A Christian who maintains an open mind and carefully examines historical tradition will find that there is much that all denominations still hold in common, and that, from each other, we can learn wonderful truths about diversity.
#2 – “So, what’s with the ashes smudged on your forehead? Is it supposed to mean something?”
Yes, it absolutely is supposed to mean something. It’s called symbolism, and it is far more powerful than we often give it credit. I spend my days teaching my students how to recognize the deep significance of Gatsby’s green light, or what the rock wall really stands for in Frost’s poem, or what Laura’s collection of glass animals reveals about her character – in other words, how symbolism underscores the human experience. But the same device that infuses works of literature with power can do the same for our worship of God. Think about it – what are sacraments, really? Let’s take a specific one we’re all familiar with – the Lord’s Supper. Now, if you’re a Catholic, you may very well hold to transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s flesh and blood. However, if you are a Protestant that embraces this ritual (yes, it’s okay to use that word), then you are embracing symbolism – the bread and wine stand for Christ’s flesh and blood, and, if observed with reverence and humility, this symbol is extraordinarily powerful. The same is true for the ashes imposed on the forehead of the believer participating in an Ash Wednesday service. Specifically, they are meant to remind the believer that he or she is earthly (“Remember you are dust…”); eventually, the physical body returns to this substance (“and to dust you shall return.”) However, the ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross, reminding us each time we look in the mirror that while we are earthly, the cross of Christ, along with the Resurrection, has reconciled us to God, and we shall also be resurrected “on the last day.” There are realists littering the world – many of them are faithful churchgoers – who would spurn symbolism because it seems like a lot of mysticism and hocus pocus. The truth is, worship is dependent upon the power of symbolism. The next time you sit in a church service, consider how many symbols are incorporated into the service, or even to the room in which you’re sitting.
#1 – “Why do you observe Ash Wednesday? Is there even any biblical basis for it?”
I do this because, before that service in 2005, my cup of Christianity had seemingly run dry. I was tired of all the artificial devotion I viewed in people, and was burnt out on the same old worship styles. I felt that if I sang one more repetitive verse of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” I might never want to sing of His love ever again. I was fed up with what felt like a forced devotion and a stale faith. However, over the course of that year, I had several opportunities to experience different faith traditions – I attended liturgical services, was introduced to the Christian calander and Lectionary, participated in contemplative prayer at a local church, and even spent a week at a Benedictine monastery. In addition to experiencing the depth of symbolism in these things, I was intrigued by the connection some of these practices and viewpoints maintained with the Church throughout history; some traditions harked all the way back to the early Church of the first and second centuries. Ironically, I found incorporating many of these disciplines rejuvenated my faith and desire to worship God. While some people find ancient tradition old fashioned, I found it revitalizing. Of course, my first reservation was whether some of these things were even biblical. It is important that we always make a conscious effort to examine if something is true; what I learned, however, is that not everything the Church does or says comes straight from the Scriptures. Many of the ideas and practices woven into our denominational creeds do come by way of specific interpretations of the biblical text, but there are others that exist because the worshippers and leaders of the early Church continually sought to clarify just what exactly they believed. Thus, even something as fundamental as the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit = One God) is never specifically outlined in Scripture. Rather, it was the ascertainment of the early Church fathers who posited this idea and then backed it up with specific biblical passages that seemed to point to this concept.
When it comes to Ash Wednesday, the most likely explanation of its purpose comes from a particular amount of time determined by early Church leaders in which new converts would first learn about the fundamental doctrines, disciplines and Church observances, culminating in mass new-member baptisms on Easter Sunday, which was originally the only day baptisms were held. Over time, this period was adapted to correspond to the traditional, numerological forty-day period of preparation (Moses on Mt. Sinai, forty years of desert wandering, Jesus’ temptation in the desert, or even the belief that the Savior lay in the tomb for forty hours). Since new members were expected to understand the extremely weighty truth that is Christ’s sacrifice, this time of preparation was marked by ascetic fasting and disciplined study of theological realities, very much like the disciplines that mark our modern day observance of Lent. And the ashes? Come on, you can’t throw a dart at a page of the Old Testament describing repentance that doesn’t include the use of ashes. As for the sackcloth, well, that’s harder to come by these days, I suppose.
So, I suppose the last thing to consider is whether or not I think all Christians should observe Ash Wednesday. While I believe it is a day of deep significance, and it resonates with me on a very personal level, I don’t think observing this particular feast day is for everyone. What I do beleive, though, is that, as Christians, we must – we absolutely must – be about the discipline of examining why we believe what we believe, and why we worship the way we worship, and why we do the things we do as Christians. Whether we like it or not, the world is watching us – our failures are public while our triumphs are private. All the more reason to live lives that are marked by open-minded examination, compassionate understanding, and a willingness to embrace the profound, exhaustive history of our Savior’s legacy.