Many Christians, mostly Protestants and independents, had never given Ash Wednesday a thought until four years ago. Then, in 2004, Ash Wednesday became a huge day in American Protestant consciousness. Why? Because on that day Mel Gibson released what was to become his epic blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ. For the first time in history, the phrase “Ash Wednesday” was on the lips of millions of evangelical Christians, not just Catholics and other “high church” Protestants.
I grew up with only a vague notion of Ash Wednesday. To me it was some Catholic holy day that I, as an evangelical Protestant, didn’t have to worry about, thanks be to God. During the spring of my first year of college, I was startled to see a woman who worked in my dining hall with a dark cross on her forehead. At first I wondered if it were a bizarre bruise. Then I noticed other women with similar crosses. It finally dawned on me what I was seeing. Here was my introduction to Ash Wednesday piety. I felt impressed that these women were willing to wear her ashes so publicly, even though it seemed a rather odd thing to do. It never dawned on me that this would be something I might do myself one day.
Fast forward sixteen years. During my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I learned that this church had a tradition of celebrating Ash Wednesday with a special worship service. It included the “imposition of ashes” on the foreheads of worshippers. I, as the pastor, was expected to be one of the chief imposers! So I decided it was time to learn about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I wanted to be sure that the theological underpinnings of such a practice were biblically solid, and that it was something in which I could freely participate.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (rather like Christmas and Easter!). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter. In the earliest centuries, Christians who had fallen into persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape.
Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. At Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served for sixteen years as pastor, and at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, Texas, where I now attend, ashes are placed on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.
What I value most about Ash Wednesday worship services is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, we can freely confess our imperfections. We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of Ash Wednesday is that it begins the season of Lent. This is also a foreign concept for many evangelical Christians. In my next post I’ll explain the meaning and practice of Lent, and why this can enrich your experience of God’s grace in Christ.