Why Ash Wednesday?

February 13, 2013

I took my usual lunchtime walk with a co-worker today. Remembering that she attends a Baptist church, I commented that I guessed they wouldn’t have an Ash Wednesday service this evening. She said no, and that it was too bad – Ash Wednesday is a tradition she appreciated when she belonged to a church that observed it.

I was a Baptist for a number of years, until I married a Presbyterian. I would see my Catholic co-workers come back to work after lunch on Ash Wednesday with black smudges on their foreheads, and I thought of Ash Wednesday as a Catholic thing.

(The Congregational church I grew up in had Ash Wednesday services, but I remember nothing about them. I didn’t really believe in Jesus back when I attended church there, and after I became a Baptist I dismissed anything the Congregational church did as empty ritual since they had not preached the Gospel clearly or cared much what people believed.)

The first time we attended a Presbyterian Ash Wednesday service where people were invited to receive ashes on the forehead, I declined. It was just too strange, too “Catholic.” I vaguely regretted not being able to bring myself to participate in that way, as it seemed meaningful to those who did.

By the time the next Ash Wednesday came around, I had come to appreciate Presbyterianism’s embrace of such traditions. Symbols are powerful in shaping our faith and our thinking, and an “embodied” symbol like a cross drawn with ashes on the forehead is that much more powerful.

A web page that does a good job of expressing what I find meaningful about Ash Wednesday is this Christianity FAQ. Another is this blog post, even though I would probably disagree with its writer, who calls herself a liberal Christian, on a number of theological points.

Interestingly, both point out that Ash Wednesday is one holiday that Hallmark will never co-opt as it has other Christian holidays. (I did discover, however, an Australian Hallmark website that not only includes Ash Wednesday in the list of holidays, but does a decent job explaining it.) Penitence and self-indulgent materialism just don’t mix. Perhaps that’s one of the best things about Ash Wednesday, and why we need it.