Today is Ash Wednesday, and as many Christians of the Protestant formerly “low church” persuasion are reacquiring some of the good and ancient practices of the church, one question in particular comes to the front: to ash or not to ash? That is, while many of us are finding great spiritual value in keeping Lent, we are also wondering, what about the whole ashes on the forehead thing?
So, why even make ashes an option? Here, briefly, are the reasons. Let me first say that I resonate with the idea of not offering ashes on Wednesday. The practice is not commanded in scripture, and it is not something that I consider to be essential to the life of the church. Therefore, I do not judge those who abstain from the practice any more than I do those who practice it.
That said, I do believe the imposition of ashes to be a good and right thing to do. My reasons are that the symbolism is taught in the scriptures, the practice has a very ancient heritage in the church, and that rituals are important to us as human beings and especially as Christian believers.
First, biblically. The scriptures actually talk quite a bit about repentance, grieving, and fasting in connection with ashes. The Bible describes our human condition as consisting of being dust and ashes. In Genesis 3:10, Yahweh tells Adam, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In Genesis 18:27, Abraham picks up on this theme and turns it into a confession, “I am but dust and ashes.” Job, lamenting on his condition and by connection the universal fallenness of the human condition laments, “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes,” (Job 30:19).
Further, not only are dust and ashes a sign of our humanity and fallenness, but also ashes are specifically a sign in the Bible of mourning and repentance. We see this in 2 Samuel 3:19 where we find Tamar, the daughter of David, mourning grievously because of a great evil done to her, and she puts ashes on her head as a sign of her mourning. In other places we find the people of God mourning and crying out to God for deliverance, using ashes as a sign of their longing for deliverance (Est. 4:3, Job 2:8, Psalm 113:7, Jer. 6:26, 25:34; Ez. 27:30, Dan. 9:3). Specifically, in Isaiah 61:3, ashes and oil on the head are connected with mourning and deliverance from mourning. Finally, ashes are also seen as a sign of repentance and deliverance from sin in Job 42:6 and Jonah 3:6.
Thus we see that the connection of ashes to mourning and repentance is strong in the Bible. Next I want to take a very brief look at the history of the imposition of ashes in the church.
From the earliest times, Lent was seen as a time to fast and mourn over our sins and to prepare our hearts for the joy of Easter. Lent, as a penitential season preceding Easter, is mentioned in the Canons of the Council of Nicaea. Athanasius, who was a father of the church and a staunch defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, speaks many times of the 40 day preparatory fast of Lent leading up to Easter. In the church this became standard practice from the 4th century, and even many of the churches coming out of the 16th century Protestant Reformation continued to observe Lent, while getting rid of some of the abuses and excesses. If you want to learn more about the history of Lent, click here.
Also in the early church, from the 4th century, there is ample evidence of applying ashes to the head as a sign of repentance and sorrow for sin. This was especially the case for those who had committed grave sins (big stuff: murder, adultery, and the like) who sought to be readmitted to the Lord’s Table. They entered a period of fasting and penitence during Lent, marked off with the biblical symbol of ashes.
Over time, the practice changed from not only reconciling those under church discipline, but also emphasizing the need for the entire Christian community to repent and mourn over their sins. In the 11 century it became standard practice in the church to begin Lent with Ash Wednesday with all the faithful receiving ashes on their heads as a sign of their repentance and sorrow for their sin.
While we are certainly not required to take up a practice that only fully began in the 11th century, we should take a closer look at the principle of catholicity. In the 5th century St. Vincent of Lerins defined catholicity as everything that is done by everyone, everywhere, from all times. Thus a practice could be deemed properly catholic (universal, for the whole church) if it passes the threefold test of unanimity, ubiquity, and antiquity. Lent certainly passes this test. But does the imposition of ashes?
The question itself stacks the deck against Ash Wednesday, because that part of our Lenten observance only came about in the 11th century. But very many things that we take for granted have developed over time and are not themselves ancient in pedigree: saying the creed in worship (8th c.), sitting down in church (13thc); singing the Thomas Ken doxology (18th c); or the inclusion of baptisms in our regular Sunday worship services (16th c.). The lesson here is that while antiquity is a stronger stamp on catholicity, we must leave room for development of practice in our concept of catholicity.
What shall we say then? Should we not say the Creed in church because it doesn’t pass the test of antiquity? I doubt anyone would argue that. Saying the Creed in church passes the test of unanimity and ubiquity, and while the antiquity of saying the Creed in worship may be in question, the antiquity of the Creed itself certainly is not in question. So it is with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a western practice, so it is not fully ubiquitous or fully unanimous. And while the imposition of ashes on the heads of all the faithful on Ash Wednesday is not a fully ancient practice, the notion of inclusion of ashes in repentance certainly is.
Lastly, let me say a bit about embodied ritual. We live in a culture that is constantly barraging us with rituals. We are moved along like sheep by the media and other forces. We participate in the Super Bowl, an event that is laden with ritual. We do Fourth of July, President’s Day, Memorial Day – and most of these rituals involve opening up the pocket book to buy things. We participate in sporting events of all kinds, which are rituals. We do Valentine’s day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day – all rituals. And yet even though our secular culture hits us with rituals all day long, seven days a week, and twice on Sunday, many of us Protestants and Evangelicals are wary of rituals in the church! In light of everything the culture uses to shape and form us, what we need in the church is not less rituals but more! We need rituals to shape and form us to counteract the forces in the culture which are forming us into anything but faithful, self-denying, cross-bearing Christians.
Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes is one of those helpful rituals that push against the world, the flesh, and the devil. When the pastor reaches out with his thumb and smears ashes on our forehead in the sign of the cross, he says, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” We are humbled in that moment. We are exhorted to repentance in that moment. That is a good moment. We need rituals that promote humility, repentance, and faithfulness.
So where does that leave us? I believe that it leaves pastors and church leaders the freedom to decide what is best for their churches in their contexts. AshWednesday, including the imposition of ashes is a good, biblical, historically catholic thing to do. There is a lot of wisdom expressed in all those hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in the western catholic tradition participating in this practice over the last 1,000 years. Personally, I have found it a very humbling, moving, and meaningful way to begin Lent each year. So while it should certainly not be required, I hope that many of us would feel the freedom to incorporate a counter-cultural faith-forming ritual like this in the life of our churches.
Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy is Pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church, Columbia, Missouri.