Our church is preparing to embark on an exciting journey next Wednesday night. Along with many sister churches across the denomination, we will be journeying from Ash Wednesday, through Easter, to Pentecost Sunday in a series we’re calling Ashes to Fire.
To begin this journey, we will be having a special Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:30 pm. Like most Ash Wednesday observances, our worship service will focus on reflection and repentance at the outset of our Lenten journey. And as in similar Ash Wednesday observances in the past, our service will include a ritual called the imposition of ashes.
We realize that such a ritual may seem unusual to some of our parishioners. It is very possible to have grown up Nazarene and never taken part in such a ritual. Understandably the unfamiliarity of the ritual to some, as well as its association in the minds of some with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, leads to questions. This is my attempt to answer some of these.
Lent is the 40 day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. There is great Biblical significance to the number 40. In particular, the 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness being prepared by the Spirit for his earthly ministry. In keeping with his pattern, we spend 40 days prayerfully preparing ourselves for the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
What is Lent?
Great question! The answer is both simple and straightforward. Lent is a period of fasting and repentance. Sunday (not just Easter Sunday, but every Sunday) is a celebration of the Resurrection. Sunday is always a time for feasting, never a time for fasting. As a result, the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter are not included in the Lenten fast. Take away the Sundays, and you get 40 days.
Why are the 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter?
As Christians around the world gather in worship next Wednesday, many of them will have the sign of the cross placed on their brow in a ritual called the imposition of the ashes. But why?
Scripturally, ashes are a visible symbol of mourning and repentance. In Job 42, as the story of Job’s suffering draws to a close, Job realizes his need for forgiveness, he announces
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’Job’s last words in the book speak of dust and ashes as a sign of repentance. And Job’s not alone. Daniel 9:3, Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13, and Hebrews 9:13 all cite ashes as a symbol of repentance. And so as we gather on Ash Wednesday, we put on the ashes to demonstrate physically the spiritual act of repentance taking place in our hearts.
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:3-6)
But it’s more than just that. In Genesis 3:19 one of the curses that came with humanity’s fall is the decree “…From dust you are, and to dust you will return.” The ashes of Ash Wednesday are not only a symbol of our repentance; they also serve as a visible reminder of our mortality and call us to humility and reflection.
Absolutely. And that’s a good thing. The word catholic comes from the Greek adjective katholikos which is a compound word made up of kata (about) and holos (the whole); it means “universal.” When we declare in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “in the holy catholic church” we are professing our belief that the Christian faith transcends our own local congregation, even our own denomination, and includes all those who call of the name of Jesus Christ for salvation.
Isn’t the Imposition of Ashes a Catholic ritual?
And the imposition of the ashes is a catholic practice. It transcends any one denominational tradition and has been practiced by Christians across the centuries and around the world. It is not the act of any single denomination or sect, it is the practice of the Church, big C, which unites all Christians everywhere. Granted, some traditions and some congregations within various traditions have neglected the practice. But that does not mean it is not a catholic practice.
The imposition of ashes is practiced within the Roman Catholic church, yes. But it is certainly not exclusively Roman Catholic. The imposition of ashes is no more a Roman Catholic practice than prayer or the Eucharist/Communion is. It is an act of worship that historically transcends any single denomination.
You know what I meant. Isn’t it a Roman Catholic practice?
What is more, it has long been practiced in our tradition. The Church of the Nazarene has it’s roots in the American Methodist movement that rose out of the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century. We trace our ecclesial history through John Wesley to the Church of England. And both Anglicans and Methodists have long practiced the imposition of ashes.
It depends what you mean by unscriptural. There is no place in the Bible where Christians are commanded to annually demonstrate their repentance by placing the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. However, there is no place in the Bible where such a practice is forbidden either.
But prayer and Eucharist are commanded in Scripture. Isn’t the imposition of ashes an unscriptural ritual?
And there are a lot of rituals in any church that are not expressly commanded in Scripture. There is no verse in the Bible that says “Thou shalt repeat the final chorus of ‘It is Well’ to really drive the point of that song home.” Yet you and I both know we do it almost every time we sing the song. Likewise, there’s no passage of scripture that commands clapping when the ushers come forward to take the offering, or coming forward to kneel at the altar in prayer.
“But the Bible does talk about being a cheerful giver. That’s why we clap.”
That is precisely my point. The Bible also talks about wearing ashes as a physical sign of our repentance before God. Out of that biblical tradition the practice of the imposition of ashes arises. That means it is no more, and no less, biblical than many of the other rituals, official and unofficial, we practice every week.
Yes, it does. And the point of that teaching is that fasting is to be a personal act of devotion, not a public plea for attention. When Jesus said “Put oil on your head and wash your face” he wasn’t forbidding personal physical demonstrations of contrition. He was addressing the common practice of putting on a public display of contrition in order to make others think of one as more religious or spiritual.
But doesn’t Matthew 6:16-18 say we should wash our faces when we fast?
If you attend an Ash Wednesday service and participate in the imposition of ashes in order to get the attention of other people and to appear more spiritual in their eyes, you are definitely in violation of the Jesus’ teaching here. However, to participate in a service which includes the imposition of ashes as a sign of deeply personal and corporate repentance is nor more a violation of this teaching than bowing your head for the pastoral prayer in worship is a violation of Jesus command to pray in the closet to be seen by God alone. It’s not a matter of where that matters, it’s the question of why.
I hope this answers some of your questions about the practice. I hope even more that this coming Wednesday you will join other Christians across the years and around the world in expressing your repentance through the imposition of ashes.
We will look at other Lenten practices and this journey we’re calling Ashes to Fire in future posts. But if you have any questions about the imposition of ashes, or stories of how the practice has strengthened your fatih, I hope you will share them in the comments below.
Photo Credit: You are Dust by Mike_tn on Flickr is used under an attribution, non-commercial, non-derivative Creative Commons license.
About Bradley Buhro
With over 15 years of youth ministry experience, Bradley serves as the Associate Minister to Youth and Families at the Middletown Church of the Nazarene where he leads the Water's Edge youth ministry.
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I want to thank Bradley for allowing us to share his story. We are preparing an Ash Wednesday service for our students this week. This post came in at the perfect time!