So about those ashes on foreheads…

Craig St. John / February 13, 2018
40 Days, Lent

By Craig St. John

We are evangelical. We are Protestant. We are Reformed. We don’t like tradition. Sola Scriptura, right? The battle cry of the Reformation (or at least one of them). Last October 31st, many Protestants celebrated what is considered the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, launched when the great Martin Luther disseminated his famous Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg and beyond.

As such, we only participate in or observe customs, rituals, and holy days/seasons commanded explicitly by Scripture, right? Like Christmas, and Easter, and…oh wait. Are we commanded to observe those? Well, the reasons for the observations, Christ’s birth and resurrection, are biblical. So those two, at least, must be warranted. Right?

Or are we not really all that anti-tradition after all?

Of course we aren’t. At least if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves. We just don’t elevate tradition to anywhere near the level we reserve for Scripture, an important principle defended during the Reformation.

So where do we draw the line?

Unfortunately, that’s not something to answer in a single, brief blog post, if at all.

But what I will claim is that, to an extent, there was an overcorrection during the Reformation.

A perfect example surrounds the season beginning today, Lent. Five years after Luther penned his Theses in what became Germany, another local reformation was also ignited in what would become Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli, a pastor in Zurich inspired by Luther, protested Lent by becoming involved in what would be known as the “Affair of the Sausages.” Claiming the Bible doesn’t prohibit eating meat during Lent, Zwingli, or at least his comrades (Zwingli allegedly abstained), feasted on their favorite pork product during the Lenten fast.

While Zwingli largely went down in history as a hero, and rightfully so (at least for other reasons), we ought to only look upon the affair as an exercise in Christian liberty, but not one that imposes a somewhat ironic form of legalism—one that says a Christian must not observe Lent or other seasons on the church calendar simply because they aren’t explicitly commanded by Scripture.

So we do emphasize Christian liberty, meaning we aren’t drawing a line—at least on this issue. While we as a local body facilitate and foster an environment for observing the Lenten season, we are by no means mandating that everyone must participate. This is an issue of conscience (see Rom 14, 1 Cor. 8). And yet, we can still say that in good conscience, folks are choosing to not participate in something that we see as a good and spiritually edifying thing.

But what is Lent? I’m glad you asked.

Lent, short for the Old English, Lenten, simply meaning “spring season,” has its roots in the early church, when new converts would spend 40 days being catechized, or instructed in the Christian faith, before being baptized on Easter or Resurrection Sunday. Over this period, these catechumens would spend deep time in meditation on their sin and then begin to repent of it. Part of this period included fasting, much like Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert in preparation for his public ministry (Matt. 4:2). Only unlike Jesus, rather than fasting entirely, their fast was humanly attainable, and the tradition has largely been to abstain from eating meat.

A much newer component of this tradition, relatively speaking, is Ash Wednesday, which we observe as a local church along with churches all over the world, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Anglican. This tradition began in the 10th century in Western Europe, but it also has its roots in the early church as well, when Christians would sprinkle themselves with ashes as a sign of repentance, much like Job when he said, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). These early Christians were being reminded of their death, which we can also trace to our condition after the fall: “for out of (dust) you were taken; you are dust” (Gen. 3:19). Traditionally, ministers drawing from this verse have said “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” to each recipient as they impose ashes on their foreheads.

Some may object to this mindfulness of death, especially since as believers, we’re no longer dead, but are rather alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5). Amen. Indeed we are. But we aren’t reliving death or seeking to return to it. Rather, we’re recalling our state apart from Christ. Remember, Lent is a season of meditation on our sin and our repentance of it. As we prepare ourselves for such rhythms, which we’ll highlight in a forthcoming post, we remember that we are nothing but dust and ashes without Christ. The sins we’ll be meditating on are not signposts pointing to our fully resurrected selves but are rather U-turns pointing back to our old selves—people we no longer are and whom we strive to no longer be. Meditating on sin indeed is being mindful of the death we were daily dying before we were in Christ. So, it only makes sense that we prepare ourselves in such a way.

And if this still seems too despairing, know that what is drawn in ash on the foreheads of the faithful is the sign of the cross—the greatest sign of hope and life that the world will ever know. But let’s not rush to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Let’s slow down and be reminded of why we ought to celebrate, lest we take it for granted.

So, as we begin the Lenten season today, we first become reminded of death and the moment that sin and death entered the world. But we must also remember that sin and death are not part of God’s created order. Yes, we’re recalling the bad news, but that’s only to highlight the good news, which again, we’ll celebrate in due time. This of course is the news that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension reverse the curse of the fall and that in him, death shall be no more. As we look forward to the good news of Easter, we start by looking at death in the face and acknowledging what it is. And in this, we begin dying to ourselves, in just a small way, through 40 days of Lenten fasting and prayer as we prepare to celebrate the life we have—moreover, the redemption of the entire cosmos—because Jesus died and rose again.

Finally, we posted this blog at 5:00 AM with the hope that some who may be up reading it might have time to get to Tempe Beach Park by 7:00 AM, where we’ll be holding our own Ash Wednesday service, our third year doing so. You are welcome to join us as we pray and sing to Jesus as the sun comes up, whether or not you choose to receive the ashes.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

– 1979 Book of Common Prayer

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