So 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.