It was Ash Wednesday this week, and I’ve had ash on the mind — and not on the forehead.
Coming from a predominantly Roman Catholic country whose minority of Evangelical Protestants tend to actively shun the trappings of Catholic ritual, it came as a surprise on my arrival here to discover Baptist churches which not only have Ash Wednesday services, but actually practice imposition of ashes on foreheads — my current church included. (My surprise was not unique, though: as Real Live Preacher points out, it’s the “quirky” Baptist churches that do the gimmicky Lenten stuff.)
I did attend last year’s Ash Wednesday service at First Baptist DC, a beautiful and somber time of reflection on sin and mortality, but this year a conversation with a coworker about the growing number of Protestant churches adopting this ritual, plus some points raised by Blog Corner Preacher, got me to thinking.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
BCPreacher’s take is that the ashes are a sign from the Old Covenant, not necessarily an indicator of pride or hypocrisy, but one unnecessary to those saved in Christ. Now, “unnecessary” doesn’t mean forbidden, and symbol-on-forehead doesn’t mean disfiguring faces to be seen by others. As holyoffice reminds us, the ashen cross is a memento mori, a reminder of death (“ashes to ashes”) and a sign to ourselves to mourn for our fallenness — and to some, sadly, still a status symbol to show the world how mournfully reflective they are.
So get the ashes if you wish, if you feel that they are a powerful sign to you of death and sin, but the moment they become an emblem to show off to the world rather than a reminder to yourself, wipe them off. Wash your face.
I shall go to Ash Wednesday service next year, I think. I shall stand with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and we shall remind each other of each other’s depravity and mortality in that ashen communion, that we are dust and we will return to dust, and we will receive the imposition of ashes, with gratitude for the sacrifice of Christ and hope for the rising promised by Easter. But at the end of the service, I think I will wipe the ash cross off and go back out into the world with a clean forehead. My pride may kick in, otherwise.