Why on earth are we writing about Ash Wednesday in a column called “Reformed Matters?” This would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago.
Though I have no hard statistics on this, it’s apparent that an increasing number of Christian Reformed congregations—and Protestant churches in general—are instituting Ash Wednesday services in their observance of Lent. Why?
First, a little history about about the observance itself. Ash Wednesday began to appear in the Western church around the 10th century to mark the beginning of Lent. Lent has its roots much farther back in the practices of fasting and repentance in preparation for Good Friday and Easter. This time of fasting and prayer imitates Jesus’ own 40-day fast in the wilderness. If you count forty days back from Easter—not including Sundays, which are never fasting days—you come back to Ash Wednesday.
The association of ashes with the fasting and repentance of Lent comes from the Bible itself. Wearing sackcloth and pouring ashes on oneself was a sign of repentance in the Old Testament. Remember Job’s words after he finally humbles himself before the Lord: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
So for centuries Christians have gathered on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent by receiving the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.
The practice has never been regarded as a sacrament in any church. It has no scriptural institution, and God does not promise to confer grace through it. Roman Catholics and Anglicans call it a “sacramental” in that, like a sacrament, it uses common material to convey spiritual truth.
The typical Ash Wednesday service has some common elements: praying Psalm 52, David’s great psalm of repentance; a call to observe the season of Lent; and a brief guide to its observance. And, of course, the imposition of the ashes.
The ashes are imposed on people’s foreheads with these words: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”—words spoken by God to Adam after he had sinned in the garden of Eden.
In the last church I served, we began to observe Ash Wednesday as a kind of experiment, but it continues to this day. Typically, about half the congregation attended this midweek service. Most surprising of all was that it was particularly popular with children and youth.
In our church we began with a simple soup supper before moving to the sanctuary. The service, brief but solemn, was marked by prayers and hymns of repentance, a sermon, and the declaration of the beginning of the season of Lent. It culminated in the imposition of ashes.
For me, giving and receiving the ashes is a deeply moving moment. After all, there are few times when we confront our helplessness, our feeble and fleeting human life, so starkly. But on Ash Wednesday someone speaks a stunning truth about ourselves and makes it stick with a black smear of ashes placed prominently on our foreheads.
Often, when a young child or even an infant came before me, I choked on the words “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Yet this essential truth is undeniable. We are, all of us, weak and mortal, poor and needy, sinful and rebellious.
But even in that moment, hope emerges. Ash Wednesday is the first step on a yearly journey that leads to the glad trumpets of Easter. The ashes are smeared on in the shape of a cross. It is the sign of the One who bore our weak and sinful humanity, who faced our mortality, and triumphed over it in his cross and resurrection.
- If you have ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service, describe your experience and your reaction.
- What is your reaction when you see someone on the street or at work with a smudge of ashes on his or her forehead?
- The connection between sin and mortality is made in the Bible (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). How do you experience this connection in your life?
- What do you think about the participation of children in this service?
- Ash Wednesday is a part of the larger practice of following the Christian liturgical year (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and so on). What do you think of this practice? What benefits or problems do you see?
- Why might an Ash Wednesday service be a good beginning for the season of Lent?
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.