Ash Wednesday

Today is a special day for my friends in the high church traditions – it is Ash Wednesday.

As a Southern Baptist, I do not observe this day like my friends who are of a ‘high church’ tradition. I can appreciate it in certain ways, however. If you are like me, in that you do not want to observe this day exactly like Catholics, etc., but you are curious about what you might appreciate about Ash Wednesday, please read on.

When you start something, when you create that moment of initiation, is it not a special moment? When I was a child and our family would go on a road trip, before we started the car, my grandfather or my mother would pray, asking for protection on the road. The point of the road trip was to visit Yosemite, or the Sequoias. It was not about sitting in the car and praying before leaving for a trip. But that first moment was still special. That prayer was a way to tell me, “The trip begins now.”

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40 day period leading up to Easter Sunday (or Resurrection Sunday, for those who want to separate from the secular culture’s use of rabbits combined with eggs, etc). Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial. I know many Baptists who practice a form of Lent, where they abstain from, say, Dr. Peppers for those 40 days. Or junk food. Or processed sugar. Usually, I hear Baptists ‘observing’ Lent by dieting, though I have also heard of denying oneself of this or that frivolous activity, though I also have Catholic friends who observe it similarly.[1]

Is this the point of Lent and Ash Wednesday? To trim one’s waistline? To go “crunchy?”[2]

In the high church tradition, Psalm 51 is typically the text for the Ash Wednesday sermon. I quote it here before continuing. It is only 19 verses long. It won’t take that long to read.

 51 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

    Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

       according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin!

    For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

    Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

       so that you may be justified in your words

and blameless in your judgment.

    Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,

and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

    Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

    Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

    Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

10    Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

11    Cast me not away from your presence,

and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

12    Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13    Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

14    Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,

O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

15    O Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will declare your praise.

16    For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;

you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

17    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18    Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;

build up the walls of Jerusalem;

19    then will you delight in right sacrifices,

in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar. [3]

 

Ash Wednesday is the first day of a season where we reflect on human mortality and repent of our sins. Are those qualities that Baptists can appreciate? Can we participate in those activities without converting to Catholicism or leaving our denomination?

I have heard it said that Catholics focus too much on the sadness of the death of Christ. When that is true, then Ash Wednesday would certainly be a part of it for those Catholics who focus on the death of Christ to the exclusion of the resurrection of Christ (to one extent or another). I quote here another passage from the Scriptures that, I think, should help us all to understand the value of Ash Wednesday a little bit more. Isaiah 61:1-3:

61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me

       to bring good news to the poor;

he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

       to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

    to grant to those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,

       the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;

       that they may be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[4]

 

In 40 days, He will replace our ashes for beauty, our mourning for the oil of gladness, our faint spirit for the garment of praise. In 40 days, we will remember again that Jesus brought and brings good news to the poor, that he bound up and binds up the brokenhearted, that he has proclaimed liberty to the captives, and opened the prison to those who are bound. We rightly reflect on our mortality and sinful inadequacy when we recognize it as a precursor to the work of Christ, who died for us all.

This season is one where winter is ending as spring begins. Death is mingled with life. On Good Friday, we will reflect on the Creator of life who demonstrated who he is by dying on a cross. On Resurrection Sunday, we will reflect on the defeat of death at the moment of Christ’s resurrection. But, for now, we speak to ourselves and each other of our mortality, and we speak to Christ about repentance, because he has spoken to us through his life, ministry, death on the cross, and resurrection from death.

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth

The place of solitude where three dreams cross

Between blue rocks

But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away

Let the other yew be shaken and reply.”

            -from T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”


[1] This does not refer to the common practice of eating fish on Fridays during the Lenten season. This practice came about because red meat was expensive, so the practice of spending so much money during this season was discouraged. Fish is a much cheaper meat, so clergy pointed their parishioners to it as a replacement during Lent. One thing led to another, and now we have big posters for the Filet-O-Fish leading up to Easter.

[2] I’ve only become “hip” to this term recently, under my wife’s tutelage.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps 51:title–19.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Is 61:1–3.

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