I grew up a Presbyterian, but not the kind who celebrated Ash Wednesday. I remember seeing my Catholic friends at school on Ash Wednesday with huge smudges on their heads. It felt like a clear reminder of a dividing line between Protestants and Catholics. It made me wonder always wonder why Presbyterians did not celebrate Ash Wednesday. That sense of wonder stayed with me until I served my first church in Rockford, Illinois – a Presbyterian church that celebrated Ash Wednesday – and I learned firsthand the liturgical significance of this tradition.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, and, now that I know more about it, I am surprised that not all Presbyterian churches embrace it. In my experience, Presbyterians like to be orderly, and what is more orderly than bookends for church seasons? But, in all seriousness, I can see why it took some churches awhile (and some still have not) to bring Ash Wednesday back after the Protestant Reformation. It is, most certainly, a holy day of ritual that is closely observed by our beloved Catholic siblings. One of the pieces of the Presbyterian denomination that I most appreciate is that there is much freedom in worship and study and service. There are many ways, not one way of doing things. My first call taught me that Ash Wednesday, though traditional, can also be celebrated in new and different ways.
At my church in Rockford, there was one lay pastor whose favorite church holy day was Ash Wednesday. In my initial opinion, this was unique, if not odd, for a Presbyterian. But, watching her prepare for the service, one could tell that she had learned to embrace the symbols — the purple adorning the church, the ashes on the table, the dust, markings and crosses. Ash Wednesday service at this church was also a beautiful mess as it was the same night as Kids Club. So all the kids would fill the sanctuary alongside the Ash Wednesday service attendees. I think this pastor especially loved explaining the meaning of Ash Wednesday to multiple generations.
The ashes of death, on the way to resurrected life, remind us that if we are not willing to die to our old selves, we cannot be raised to life with Christ. The ritual of abstaining from something during Lent goes along with this as well as accompanying Christ in sacrifice. In my church in Illinois, there were so many children who came up to receive ashes, so we had two sayings as we marked foreheads. For the adults, we said the familiar “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). To the children, we said, “Marked and sealed with the sign of Christ” as we placed a cross on their forehead or hand. Whatever the phrase, the ashes remind us that we are temporary; Christ is eternal.
Living during a pandemic has further shown me how the tradition of Ash Wednesday can be celebrated in different ways. Like last year, we will place the ashes on the table with hand sanitizer and invite worshipers to mark themselves this year as I recite the Scripture. While also a helpful pandemic hack, this practice makes the worshiper even more of a participant. As Christ willingly chose the cross, we will willingly join Christ on this journey, beginning with marking ourselves with ashes. I am planning some Ash Wednesday stations of reflection and ritual to go along with our ashes this year.
I still consider myself new to Ash Wednesday, but I am growing to love it like that lay pastor back at my old church. I am growing to love the hands-on, participatory nature of this ritual worship. I am growing to love entering into this Lent season with Christ with action and purpose. And, like a true Presbyterian, I am loving worshiping on an “old” holy day with our “new” churches right where we are. I am now a Presbyterian who celebrates Ash Wednesday, and I truly can’t imagine beginning Lent without it.