Today is Ash Wednesday on the Christian liturgical calendar. That meant practically nothing in my decidedly sheltered southern Appalachian context. It never even dawned on our conservative Pentecostal churches to pay any attention whatsoever to that sort of thing. We were, after all, filled with the Spirit and ostensibly experiencing His presence every day, full of faith and power! To us, Lent was a spelling error for something entirely different. As my worldview broadened after leaving the confines of my beloved hamlet (I love interjecting that word – it’s so colorful), I encountered people for whom observance of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and even Advent (before Christmas) was an integral part of their Christian walk, and who chose to memorialize key steps on Christ’s journey in a tangible way. The first time I remember seeing anyone with ashes smudged on their forehead, I, like any well raised aspiring southern gentleman, offered her a Kleenex. My gesture was not well received. She then explained to me that this was the beginning of a season of self-examination and preparation for Easter (she left off the part about being ashamed of what she had just done on Fat Tuesday), that she had ritually prayed for forgiveness, and confessed to having received it on that day. Up until that point in my life, Easter had been defined with little to no mention of Good Friday, let alone Maundy Thursday or any of the other notable dates of remembrance. To most of the people I knew, Mardi Gras was a parade in New Orleans, participation in which by our high school marching band brought them back to us with a decidedly higher threshold for blushing. Ours was defined by the world’s largest egg hunt just down the mountain, and an excuse to get the extended family together for a big ole meal. Exposure to some really passionate Christians that observed Ash Wednesday made me take a closer look at what I had so casually dismissed as superficial and unnecessary. Boy was I wrong!
So here’s the crux of the matter. The way I understand it, the ashes are symbolic of repentance, literally acceptance of our mortality and personal accountability for our sins. The Roman Catholic tradition (among others) is to burn the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday processional (another ‘new’ thing) and reserve the ashes for use on the following year’s ‘Day of Ashes’. In the middle ages, Christians started the tradition of having their foreheads marked by the priest in the sign of the cross to represent absolution of their sins. Some say that it began concurrently with the idea that the priest was the mediator and physical source of forgiveness by proxy, sometime in the 13th century. It is that connection that to this day causes some fundamentalist folk of the Protestant persuasions to reject the whole shootin-match for fear of encouraging that deception. I’ve discovered that, like many things that tend to separate restorationist oriented Christians from their connection to the catholic church (note the little ‘c’ for you Apostle’s Creed clutchers), we’ve thrown the metaphorical baby out with the bath water. The earliest observance and intent of the first day of Lent was to re-enact and reflect the journey of Christ toward His passion and His glorious resurrection. Lent was initially 36 fast days long and later extended to 40 to replicate Christ’s fast in the wilderness. Sundays are not fast days – that’s why Easter is 46 calendar days after Ash Wednesday. Fasting was (and still is) a fundamental part of Lenten observance, though it has gone through some interesting changes through the centuries. At it’s core, the motivation behind observance of Lent was to tell the story to and by Christians as visible witness in a largely illiterate world by use of symbolic reminders of the steps along the way. All in all a noble, if sometimes hijacked motive.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that we all start lining up our activity calendars with the liturgical one and start preaching from the lectionary, but there is something to be said for an intentional period of reflection building up to the celebration of Christ’s passion. Perhaps the most theologically devastating innovation of the modern era has been abandonment of the doctrine of original sin in favor of a presumption of inherent goodness. Reflection on the gravity of our sin – more specifically, a period of contemplation of our own mortality and culpability for that sin – is nothing but beneficial in light of the self-help headwind with which orthodox doctrine must contend. Christ’s sacrifice was about our sin, not our potential. True Christianity demands that we be born again, not just reoriented, and there yet remains only one name given among men whereby we MUST be saved – Jesus! I still don’t go through the motions of that admittedly man-made gesture of penitence on Ash Wednesday. I do, however, embrace the intent of most who are signifying that they have confessed their own personal sin to the Master, and are seeking a closer walk with Him in Christian surrender. By the way, if I see you with ashes on your forehead while you’re lined up with me at the Golden Corral, I will offer you a napkin to clean that smudge off since you’re supposed to be fasting too! No mixed messages allowed!!!!