This personal reflection by Mark Roberts reminds us of the depth of meaning that Ash Wednesday brings to Easter People.
What is Ash Wednesday?
by Mark D. Roberts
What is Ash Wednesday? For most of my life, I didn’t ask this question, nor did I care about the answer. I, along, with most evangelical Christians in America, didn’t give Ash Wednesday a thought.
But then, in 2004, Ash Wednesday loomed large in American Protestant consciousness. Why? Because on that day Mel Gibson released what was to become his epic blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ. For the first time in history, the phrase “Ash Wednesday” was on the lips of millions of evangelical Christians, not just Catholics and other “high church” Protestants, as we anticipated the official release of The Passion.
I grew up with only a vague notion of Ash Wednesday. To me, it was some Catholic holy day that I, as an evangelical Protestant, didn’t have to worry about, thanks be to God. In my view, all of “that religious stuff” detracted from what really mattered, which was having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In my early evangelical years it never dawned on me that some of “the religious stuff” might actually enrich my faith in Christ.
During the spring of 1976, my first year of college, I was startled to see a woman who worked in my dining hall with a dark cross rubbed on her forehead. At first I wondered if it were a bizarre bruise. Then I noticed other women with similar crosses. It finally dawned on me what I was seeing. Here was my introduction to Ash Wednesday piety. These women, who were are Roman Catholic, had gone to services that morning and had ashes placed on their foreheads. I felt impressed that these women were willing to wear their ashes so publicly, even though it seemed a rather odd thing to do. It never dawned on me that this would be something I might do myself one day.
Fast forward sixteen years, to the spring of 1992. During my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I learned that this church had a tradition of celebrating Ash Wednesday with a special worship service. It included the “imposition of ashes” on the foreheads of worshippers. I, as the pastor, was expected to be one of the chief imposers! So I decided it was time to learn about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I wanted to be sure that the theological underpinnings of such a practice were biblically solid, and that it was something in which I could freely participate.
Here’s some of what I learned . . . .