The other day I went into a local Christian bookstore and asked if they carried any children trinkets for Ash Wednesday–things like stickers and pencils and stuff. I was caught off-guard when the store clerk informed me that, no, they don’t carry Ash Wednesday stuff because Baptists don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday.
That was a surprise to me. I know many Baptists who observe Ash Wednesday, including me. Why, many churches throughout the South, not to mention the North, also practice Ash Wednesday. Perhaps we need to set the record straight.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is a time in the Christian calendar that eventually leads to Holy Week, or the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. It lasts forty days and emphasizes repentance, confession, and fasting. We follow Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) and recall Israel’s wanderings in the desert to live “not by bread alone, but by the very Word of God,” to feast on the spiritual manna of God’s forgiveness.
Ash Wednesday, therefore, inaugurates Lent by re-enacting the Jewish tradition of repenting with ashes. This is an ancient custom, one in which a penitent sinner sprinkled ashes on the head as a sign that he or she was no match for God (Esther 4:1-3 for example; or, more dramatically, Jeremiah 6:26). Although Jesus came to give God’s children “a garland instead of ashes” (Is. 61:3), this practice became a part of the Christian church as early as 130 AD.
These days, many churches are casting off rituals such as Ash Wednesday in order to get at the “relationship” one has with God. Why practice these “rituals” when so many people no longer desire religiosity?
I can’t answer that on behalf of other Christians; but, for me, Ash Wednesday and the rest of the Christian calendar represents a structure that provides rich meaning in my own journey of faith. It gives me a skeleton upon which to hang some healthy spiritual muscles.
To say that Ash Wednesday is not relevant is like saying my family tree has no relevance in shaping who I am as a person. When I join Christ’s Church in practicing those time-tested traditions, I feel like I belong to something larger than myself–It gets me out of the self-centered, individualistic cult that Christianity has become for far too many communities of faith.
I’m not saying that a church is wrong for not practicing Ash Wednesday–After all, there is beauty in the mosaic of diverse communities that sustain faith on their own terms. Rather, I am saying that a nose in the Body of Christ should not tell the arm what to do no more than the arm should look down on the nose because the nose can be snotty sometimes.
What matters most is that a variety of worship styles can bolster one’s relationship with God rather than hinder it. For instance, I experience faith in a kinesthetic worship setting. I like to use all five senses, not just sing songs or hear someone preach. I like the feel of the ashes on my forehead, the smell of burning candles on the altar, the look of the purple frontal (tablecloth) on the communion table and the sitting-and-standing routine in the order of worship that helps engage my whole being.
It is a magnificent, inexplicable spiritual experience that actually has little to do with either ritual or religiosity.
Ultimately, Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am only human and that I, too, am in need of God’s grace day in and day out. We who follow Christ pick up our cross daily and sing “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go,” but a formal time of confession always makes me all the more willing to do so even in the midst of the failures and fragility of life.
“The History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday,” by Richard Bucher
“The Beginning of Lent,” by Todd Olsen
“Lent for Baptists,” by Jim Denison