Confessions of a Non-Asher

AshWednesdaySo I saved this post for after Ash Wednesday. Well I saved it for nearly after, because I have had just about all of the Lenten apologetics that I can handle. All of us catholic-minded Protestants seem to have just discovered Lent, and we’re very committed to talking about it, whether in favor or against. But I couldn’t quite stay out of it fully, which brings me to this post.

The first thing to say is that Ash Wednesday and Lent are definitely in the “non-essentials” category. Adiaphora, or things indifferent, are things which are neither morally commanded nor morally prohibited. 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 righteous. I know that’s an uncomfortable category, but it is the mark of maturity be able to judge and apply such cases.

Secondly, the practice of the imposition of ashes in the manner of today’s Ash Wednesday celebrations dates back to 10th cent. Spain. 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. What is used is the generic penitential office. 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.

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 grumpies 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. 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. If the other Presbyterians want to keep singing the same old Fanny Crosby hymns, that’s their prerogative, but as for me and my house, we’ll be bringing out Bach and Cruger. Still, that’s not actually adding a new element to worship. It’s just a matter of emphasis and aesthetic quality.

The imposition of ashes 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. And again, 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 sin, but it strikes me as a bad idea. 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 reluctant to do so at Lent.

Fourth, you should also ask the basic questions why you do it and what it 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 theodrama. And I’m suspicious of that.

And lastly, if you do practice Ash Wednesday, please don’t make a big to-do about it. 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.

And if you do that, then I’ll promise not to say anything more about it.

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17 thoughts on “Confessions of a Non-Asher

  1. Yeah! Asher is my son’s name! Now I feel guiltier than I would have if I just observed Lent.

  2. Pingback: Putting “Lent” and “Ash Wednesday” into perspective | Reformation500

  3. As someone from the pro-ash side I just have to say that I love the fact you were able to work Johnny Cash into your thesis here. Awesome.

    You are correct about the penitential office in the BCP not technically being an Ash Wednesday rite. I happen to love that rite, but I’ll admit that even it is a late addition to the BCP, showing up only in the American prayer book.

  4. I found the service I participated in yesterday very meaningful and have felt it is an addition to our liturgy that I like to observe every year. There was a time when everything that smacked of Catholicism was not done in our Lutheran Church. i.e. no collars, no vestments worn by the minister, no crossing ourselves and so forth. Now some of these things have come back and are a choice some Lutherans make. I’m sure Luther continued these practices during his lifetime. This is the day I remember that without Christ I am dead in my sins, and that His death and Resurrection brought new life to us after death.

  5. I hear you, and I think we should be very wary of making too much of a fetish out of the practice, but as an even more moderate-RPWer than you, I don’t see any reason to object to it in principle. Ashes on the head is a biblical sign of repentance, and if the wee little cross on the forehead is a pretty attenuated version of that, well, the wee little wafer of bread and sip of wine is probably a pretty attenuated version of the practice of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, and the little splash of water we do is probably a pretty attenuated version of New Testament baptism. Maybe it would be better if we could get back to a more robust version of all of the above, but in the meantime, I see no reason to rule out the attenuated version as unacceptable. (And no, just because I used actual sacraments as analogies doesn’t mean I’m in any way trying to make ashing another sacrament; merely pointing out that if attenuating the practice of an actual sacrament is OK, then so should be attenuating the practice of a lesser ritual.)

    It being clearly lawful, and broadly grounded in Scripture, then, the only question seems to me, good Hookerian that I am, “Is it edifying?” And good Hookerian that I am, I would say that on the whole, we are creatures of sense, and are edified by sensible signs—“The sensible things which Religion hath hallowed, are resemblances framed according to things spiritually understood, whereunto they serve as a hand to lead and a guide to direct.” (LEP IV.1.4)
    I make no attempt to speak for others, but in my experience, the tangible reception of the ashes, and the sight of them on the foreheads of others, drives home far more strongly the words of imposition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” than any mere recitation of words could do. So, as far as it goes, it seems to be lawful, Biblically grounded, and for many, edifying, and thus a pretty good idea, though as you say, adiaphorous.

    Might we do more? Dress all in black on Ash Wednesday, or repeatedly throughout Lent? Sure, sounds like a great idea to me, so long as we could be sure we were doing so as a public witness to the world of corporate repentance, rather than as a way of Pharisaically showing off our holiness and fastiness. If Protestants want to recover a more radical observance of Lent, great! But that needs to be a slow and careful process, and baby steps, like an Ash Wednesday service, shouldn’t be dismissed as without value.

  6. Brad,

    Thanks for the comment. As I said, it’s adiaphora, and we do not live in a context where it is the norm by any means. It is actually very late among Protestants, as I’ve been told that the Anglicans only started it in the early 20th cent. Thus the argument has to be made as to why to introduce it, rather than simply not remove it. I think your first paragraph gives it away. The only way our Ash Wednesday services can really be meaningful is if they are sacramental. Otherwise they are just pretend. And that’s where I can’t see that it’s necessarily a “baby step” in the right direction at all. It seems to be a baby step away from the Reformation, and it isn’t at all clear that the overriding motivation is really distinct from the larger movement of liturgical-renewal, in which case it shows a sort of uncritical trend-reception on the part of Protestants.

  7. Hi Andrew,

    A moderate version of the RPW is one that says that the Bible gives us general instruction, though not absolute positive command, for the main elements of worship. We use Biblically-informed wisdom to fill in the rest, as suits time and occasion, but we try to closely follow the Biblical instruction, theme, and direction. Thus we shouldn’t add things to the worship simply because we want to, but rather because they are faithful to Biblical precedent.

  8. Greetings Steven. This is late to press, but if I might add a few comments on the Imposition of Ashes for those who practice it. Seriously gentlemen, how do the imposition of ashes on a penitent persons head, draw that person closer to Christ? Am I missing something so deep and spiritual that I could never understand as my attitude clearly demonstrates? Consider the symbol itself and ask yourself how it helps you remember, “when you cannot even see it.” It’s on your forehead, not your hand (which might be a better place because the penitent should be looking down, not up). But there are very clear spiritual teachings on not being seen when practicing righteousness. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” “Do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men.” The focus here is on being “noticed” by men. Lent should be a time of personal and corporate devotion with fasting and prayer, reflecting on the atoning work of Christ. To symbolize to the world, what should be this deepest time of devotion is not letting your light so shine. God looks at the heart, not the forehead, and the heart is where lent belongs. Lent is not a time to be noticed by others.

  9. ISTM that “miniature symbolism” is what we’re all used to in communion and baptism. Nobody pours. Nobody takes a full glass of wine, or a slice of bread.

    I’m not sure sackcloth and ashes is a ‘ritual’ Dinner isn’t a ritual. but extracting out 2 things from it and taking them in small doses would be.

  10. Paul,

    Two problems there. The sacraments’ “sign” and “token” character is typically a component of what makes them sacramental. Thus you’d have to say the same about the ashes. But also, you’re missing my point. Water is a symbol of Christ’s blood. The Bread and Wine are symbols of His body and blood. The little ash-smudge is a symbol of the big ash-covering of the Bible, which is itself a symbol of repentance.

    Now, to the Lord’s Supper in particular, the Reformed Protestants have always said that the current way we do it is less than optimal. We are fairly certain that in the early church the LS was an actual meal, patterned after the Jewish ritual feasts. It was attenuated for efficiency’s sake, and this has had it’s good and bad effects.

    Sackcloth and ashes was certainly a ritual action. It showed the internal condition of penance in an external way, and it could even be commanded corporately. Dinner isn’t a ritual, but ritual dinners- meals in the religious context infused with religious significance- are.

  11. For the same reasons, I hate seeing a big deal being made of Advent candles in evangelical churches. If it be a bit of a countdown to Christmas, then let it be but little more obtrusive than a clock on the wall.

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