Years ago, (pre-ministry and even pre-church,) I worked in an office with a Hispanic woman who would show up every spring with a black spot on her forehead. Not wanting to make her self-conscious, I didn’t ask what it was. I always assumed she’d had a flat tire on the way to work and somehow got smudged. One year, however, I happened to be walking past her desk on the way to the donut box that magically appeared each Friday morning, and heard someone ask her about it. “It’s ashes,” she said, “from Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It’s to help remind me how much Jesus suffered for my sins.” She continued, “So that’s why Catholics give up something for Lent – as a way of suffering. I’m giving up chocolate.” I continued my stroll wondering what she’d done that was so bad that Jesus had to die for her …
What we now call Ash Wednesday began as the Day of Ashes. Its observance goes back to the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604). It has its symbolic roots in the Old Testament practice of using ashes on the head as a sign of humility and mortality – accepting, in effect, that we are not God! History is pretty sketchy about exactly how things started and began to morph … but It seems that, at some point, only those who had been excluded from communion but who wanted re-acceptance into the church, were required to perform public penance. They would sprinkle themselves with ashes or visibly mark themselves with an ash cross on their forehead. This was seen as the penitent expressing sorrow and approaching Christ for re-admittance into the fellowship of the church. Believers who saw someone with an ash mark on their forehead were asked to pray for and feel sympathy for them. In 1091, the Roman Christian church adopted a new meaning, encompassing recognition of mortality and sorrow for sin along with requiring acts of sacrifice. Thus, over time, a private meditation and devotional action became a required act of penance for those excluded from church communion … and from there it became a required public proclamation of sinfulness and remorse which included sacrificial acts of contrition.
With the division of the Roman Church into Roman and Protestant in the 16th century, critical examination of the foundations of faith exploded. Martin Luther proclaimed “sola scriptura” – Scripture alone – necessary for faith and salvation. This meant that only those practices found in the Bible would be acknowledged and practice. Based on this, the emphasis that had built up over time that, by focusing on sorrow, suffering, and deprivation people could somehow earn re-admittance into God’s love, was rejected. (“Giving something up” for Lent is understood as a means of atoning sacrifice – thus returning to the Old Testament practice of paying God for our sins and earning our way back into God’s favor.) Protestant churches abandoned Ash Wednesday as promoting a false understanding of faith, scripture, and Grace.
In more recent times, prompted by the ecumenical spirit that emerged in the late 20th century, many Protestant churches reclaimed the practice of preparation for by re-instituting a service of ashes on the Wednesday that begins Lent. However, it is important for us to reject the notion of sacrifice earning Grace. Instead, let’s remember that in words and rituals, we can claim new meanings and practices that point us in a direction consistent with our theological understandings.
On Ash Wednesday 2017, I suggested new way of reclaiming the historical emphasis whereby ashes symbolize humility and mortality. I’ll go into that in more detail in Part 2 … next week.