It’s Ash Wednesday, the day for smearing ashes on the forehead at the beginning of the season of Lent. Yet, I am at work and can’t wait to participate in worship on Sunday. Am I lacking in piety? Probably, but that’s another matter. Participating in Ash Wednesday may mark someone as more pietistic than someone not participating, but the mark is not always a reality.
To ash or not to ash, that is the question? If I were a Roman Catholic I would be participating, in the same way I am an American who give thanks and eats Turkey the last Thursday of the month of November. If I were an Anglican I would probably participate for the same reason. It is a part of what it means to be Catholic or Anglican participating in a church calendar that follows the traditions of those slices of religion. But I am a confessing reformed Presbyterian who enjoys six days of work and one of gathering with the body of Christ for corporate worship. Call me boring.
Ash Wednesday was introduced as a part of the church calendar of the Roman Church in the fourth century. It is the beginning of a 40 day fast prior to Easter. The Sunday’s coming before Resurrection Sunday do not count as fast days but all other days starting with Ash Wednesday are considered a fast. The sprinkling of ashes or the marking of the forehead with ashes is a reminder that man is dust (Gen.3:19) and that being identified with Christ we are forgiven of sins. Nothing wrong with that theology.
However, God has provided in his service of worship this certainty and our participation in that certainty every Lord’s Day. When the Law of God is read we are reminded that we are but dust of the earth who breaks God’s law by omission and commission each and everyday. Therefore, we pray asking God to forgive us our sins and have mercy on us for the sake of Christ. Then there is from God’s Word a verse or passage read or prayed assuring us of his pardoning grace for all living by faith in Christ Jesus. The same is true when we hear God’s Word preached as the law and the gospel bear upon our lives. The reading and preaching of God’s Word leads us to repentance and faith. Also, when the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed the very same theology is proclaimed until our Lord returns. God has accommodated himself to us in all these means demonstrating our utter fragility and helplessness, like dust that is swept up by the swirling winds, and at the same time proclaiming himself and his salvation to us in glorious wisdom, power and goodness revealed in Jesus Christ.
We who participate in these means of grace week in and week out are no less spiritual than those who are participating in Lent. We are not to judge them as sinful for participating in Ash Wednesday or the season of Lent, but neither can we who do not participate be judged as being less pietistic or spiritual.
However, deciding to participate in Lent because: a person is seeking a deeper spirituality or experience with God; someone is trying to shake up a dull religious life; my friends are doing it together; a person needs help with their self control; or this is what it means to be a hip Christian… is dangerous. Participating in a liturgical calendar is not a prescribed means of grace through which we participate in God’s salvation in Christ. God brings us into his grace and keeps us there by ordinary means. It is possible to substitute a form of godliness for God himself revealed in Christ. This is dangerous. This is how we cut ourselves off from God’s grace in Christ. It is always dangerous to yoke ourselves to performing self justifying feats, rather than trusting God by faith to work toward us by his grace in the ordinary ways he communicates his salvation to his creatures. Perhaps if we would give more credibility to the ordinariness of repentance and faith in Christ, communing with God around his Word and prayer each day, and the ordinary corporate Lord’s Day worship each week, we may find ourselves participating by faith in a little bit of heaven while in the earth.