Ash Wednesday is the day that traditionally begins the Christian “season” of Lent, a time of preparation for individuals and faith communities to celebrate Easter. This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 6.
As most of us know, many Christian traditions have adopted and established ceremonies that use ashes, usually placed on a person’s forehead in the shape of a cross, to signify their willingness to reflect upon their sinful nature and repent of sin. We Baptists have never “officially” adopted this tradition and for good reason — in Matthew 6:1, Jesus states, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” And for a good portion of the rest of that chapter, Jesus continues to warn about overtly public displays of faith that call attention to oneself as opposed to God.
Some years ago when I was on the faculty and staff of Andover Newton Theological School I had taken part in the Ash Wednesday chapel service and has ashes on my forehead. I was at a local CVS later that afternoon and overheard a clerk laugh and say to her coworker, “Hey, that guy’s got a big smudge of dirt on his head!” To which her coworker responded, “Shhh! It’s Ash Wednesday — he’s Catholic!”
Attention was drawn to me and assumptions and misunderstandings were made and I wonder if those two young teenagers enven thought about God or repentance.
So am I saying we should somehow forego participating in Ash Wednesday services and thus demonstrate our theological superiority as we obey Jesus’ warnings “better” than those who receive the imposition of ashes? Not at all. It really comes down to this: does participating in Ash Wednesday (indeed in any religious rite or ritual) draw us closer to God? What are our motivations for doing what we do when it comes to things like prayer, praise, or worship? If it is to honor God and strengthen our spiritual lives, then so be it. We can’t control what others think or how they respond. What we can do is be sincere in our faith, strong in our desire to please God.
May our Lenten journey this year be filled with many moments of reflective contact with the Holy One as we reach out in faith and hope to the Resurrected One.
Rev. Dr. Richard E. Haley