Ash Wednesday: What do Presbyterians do?

Lauren McFeaters remembers exactly when she learned about Ash Wednesday.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

She grew up in Pennsylvania, in a community near Pittsburgh that was about evenly split — folks were either Scots Presbyterian or Catholic, only a sprinkling of anything else. And when she was in sixth grade, the Catholic kids began to come to public school, because their parochial schools only continued through the elementary grades.

Then it was February, “and all of a sudden they’re in school with these black marks on their heads,” said McFeaters, now an associate pastor at Nassau Church in Princeton, N.J.

Kids started talking about giving up things, and the lunch menu in the cafeteria changed on Fridays, from pizza to fish sandwiches and tater tots. She learned, gradually, what Lent was all about, both culturally and theologically.

And by the time McFeaters was in high school, her congregation, “which was kind of the last holdout of all things Scot and traditional,” initiated a Good Friday service for the first time ever.

More and more, Presbyterian churches are beginning to embrace the rituals of Ash Wednesday, and to give serious thought to the meaning of Lent.

For Presbyterians, “it’s probably in the past 20 years that we’ve begun to kind of recover Ash Wednesday as part of our worship life,” said Paul Galbreath, an associate for worship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national staff. Before that, “it was perceived as Roman Catholic, and was something that good Presbyterians didn’t do. Not that we really knew what it was— it was just foreign to our culture.”

But what has made congregations more accepting of Ash Wednesday rituals has been a broader reassessing of the liturgical traditions and teachings related to Holy Week, the days right before Easter, and to the preceding weeks of Lent, Galbreath said. Congregations focused on Lent talk of preparation and spiritual discipline, mirroring Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and temptation in the desert before he was killed.

To some, Lent means “giving something up” — maybe chocolate or television or beer. But Galbreath encourages Presbyterians to take something on — to commit themselves to doing something that will deepen their faith during Lent, be it daily Scripture reading, working in a homeless shelter, or cutting back their own spending so they can give more to help others.

“Lent offers so much,” said McFeaters, who’s come to see it as “a season of absolute necessity in my own life of faith.”

For her, “Lent lays a road that takes us from some of the dreary places in our life of faith to the joy of Easter, and all the places in between.” She uses it to reconsider her baptismal identity on this road home, and thinks of it as a time not just “to drag ourselves through the ashes,” but also “an opportunity to pick up this gift that God has laid before us,” to meet a God of mercy and open arms.

Galbreath also sees value in focusing on Ash Wednesday on the certainty of death — as is said in some congregations as the ashes are imposed, “From dust you come and to dust you shall return.”

“Death is a part of life — we’re finite,” he said. “Ash Wednesday is the one time of year the church is really honest about that. We don’t live forever, so the choices we make and the things we do are important, because we’re only here for a short time.”

This year particularly, with the tsunami and other tragedies, people are aware that death can come in an instant — they’re feeling the pain of the world. “Maybe Ash Wednesday especially this year is a way to talk about grief, not denying it or rushing to resurrection, but really holding death and resurrection in tension,” Galbreath said. “It’s really powerful to do that in community.”

As McFeaters considers the tsunami, and the deaths from rain and mudslides in California, she has thought: “The water drowns us in baptism. We go into baptismal waters and die.” For Christians, the waters of death are also “this womb of rebirth and these arms that are waiting for us.”

More and more, Presbyterian churches are getting creative with Ash Wednesday, finding ways to bring it to life.

Nassau Church has a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, with Presbyterian college students in charge of cooking and serving the cakes.

Fairview Church in Indianapolis marks Ash Wednesday with a jazz service — taking advantage of the musical talents of some of its members, and, amazingly, making this service popular with people who aren’t members of the church, despite the emphasis on mortality and sin.

The service has evolved over the years. When John Koppitch, the pastor, arrived nine years ago, “there was a lot of uneasiness about the ashes,” he said. (“Presbyterians aren’t very demonstrative about our faith,” Koppitch said. “We don’t wear it on our sleeves,” much less on our foreheads.)

So when he started at Fairview, “we imposed the ashes, but then at the Declaration of Pardon we wiped them off,” Koppitch said. “The service concluded with a real celebratory mood. We’re penitent, but it’s in the context of God’s love and grace. We’re forgiven, and we’re looking forward to the resurrection.”

Now, the ashes stay on, and Koppitch takes care during Lent to preach about the basics of Christian faith and the Reformed understanding of sin and resurrection. He tells people that “the Christian faith is not just a set of ideas or doctrines, but it’s a way of life,” and Lent is the perfect season to work on what that means.

In their preaching, Presbyterian ministers also look for ways to bring the message home.

“I use language related to wilderness,” speaking of “making space for God, learning to live in an uncrowded way, in an austere environment, both internally and externally,” said Eric E. Peterson, pastor of Colbert Church, a new congregation started seven years ago just outside Spokane. “You enter into a reduction where you’re making space and emptying oneself of the things that tend to crowd out God.”

At The Presbyterian Church in Burlington, Mass., outside Boston, Pastor Rod MacDonald follows the tradition of burning palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes (“although I found those darn things don’t burn easily,” MacDonald said.)

When the ashes are imposed, people pair off, after they are reminded that in Genesis God told Adam “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

One person in the pair asks the other: “Do you remember?”

“I remember,” the other replies.

The first traces a cross of ashes on the second’s forehead, and then the favor is returned.

MacDonald’s congregation stands as a church on a Wednesday night, praying in the darkness as the cars rush by outside. “People are going to malls or whatever they’re doing and here’s this little group of us gathered here confessing our complete dependence on God in all we do — it feels like a pretty radical kind of thing,” MacDonald said.

He tells the people: “When you go home and when you wash this cross off your forehead, remember your baptism in Christ and the good news. Even on Ash Wednesday, mortality isn’t the last word. God still has the last word.”