Are Those Ashes on Your Forehead or Simply The Evidence of My Unhappiness the Last Time I Saw You?

Reformed Protestants don’t do Lent. It is not simply a function of giving up the church calendar and foreswearing holy days appointed by Rome. (Of course, Reformed Protestants do have a church calendar and sequence of holy days — one every week, for that matter, going by the name of the Lord’s Day.) It is also the result of differences between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants over the nature of repentance. Lent is part of Rome’s practice of penance — a way of meriting absolution for sins committed after baptism.  Even so, contemporary Protestants are an eclectic bunch and find the practices of Rome appealing and even edifying. 

Beyond the theological problems of Reformed Protestants practicing Lent is the practical difficulty of observance.  Presbyterians are not known for being a high-church lot.  In fact, the recent trend has been toward informality, contemporary music, and liturgical variety.  So if a low-church Presbyterian wanted to observe Lent, where would he go for the ashes?  Do any New Life churches actually observe Ash Wednesday (fat Tuesday is another matter)?  Probably not.  That leaves a low-church Protestant having to go to a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian church to receive the outward sign that marks contrition.  But are the ashes available to any Tom, Dick or Mary who walks in off the street?  I know Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards’ granddaddy, considered the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance — a means that led sinners to Christ.  But do Roman Catholics actually let those unwashed by Rome’s holy water have access to the church’s ashes?

Maybe they do.  But I would have thought that being in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome was important for participating in Ash Wednesday services.  Church membership might also be a necessity for obtaining ashes in an Episcopalian church.  So how is it that low-church Protestants, those outside the churches that observe Lent, get a dirty forehead forty days before Easter?

I am not naive enough to think that churches and their ordinances maintain coherence or retain integrity.  We live in a time of cafeteria Christianity, when believers are free to shop for whatever liturgical commodities will get them through the inter-advental era.  But if cable TV companies will not allow consumers to mix and match their desired channels and networks, why are churches more accommodating to the brand disloyalty that afflicts the would-be followers of Christ?

37 thoughts on “Are Those Ashes on Your Forehead or Simply The Evidence of My Unhappiness the Last Time I Saw You?

  1. I’ve been celebrating anti-Lent for years. Lately, I’ve taken to calling it the High Holy Season of Splurge.

    But, really, Darryl… don’t you know that these Lenten protestant-pretenders simply have a special “Personal Devotions” ritual wherein they put ashes on their own heads? Not kidding.


  2. Full disclosure — the feathers and all bit comes straight from Luther whom I’d like to think would have written for the NTJ.


  3. A few years ago, I accompanied my in-laws to a PCUSA Ash Wednesday service when I was quite naive over the distinctions of Presbyterian denominations. They had ashes and opened it for any and all (I was not a member) to receive them. What did I know? So I went forward. I have used all succeeding lents to look back and laugh and cry and thank God I’m not so confused any longer.


  4. So much for not letting the Lutheran cat out of the NTJ bag. (I know an Old Schooler who swallowed a Luther, feathers and all.)


  5. Zrim, I thought you might pick up on the apparent inconsistency.

    I’m in the standardized testing business, constructed response division–spotting inconsistency is what we do, ma’am. (I wish somone I worked with read this blog; s/he’d so get the joke, and there would be much rejoicing.)


  6. You forgot the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Members of my Reformed family went down the street to the local LCMS for ashes and the Lord’s Supper (the local church does not practice closed communion).


  7. I once worked with a fellow who was raised in a working class family in Northern England who then moved to Western Massachusetts. He had never heard of Ash Wednesday, so he was distressed at the reaction he received when he helpfully informed a Catholic he ran into that there seemed to be some grime on his forehead.

    Actually, he had heard of ash Wednesday. He said that in his family they pronounced “Hash” as we say “ash”. His mother fixed hash on Ash Wednesday. He just thought it was a day that everybody ate [corned beef] hash.


  8. PS I should explain that hash means marijuana in Glasgow incase it doesn’t translate across the pond. We deep fry anything, heck, we’d deep fry our grandparents.


  9. Hello, Dr. Hart. I’ve been watching your blog for a little bit, and I thought I’d say hello, and comment:

    I don’t understand why one would want to walk around with a mark on their forehead that looks like something between a bird’s droppings and a Hare-Krishna mark (which also looks like bird’s droppings). If the RCs and Lutherans want to celebrate that day, I say, “Soot yourself”.

    If Reformed and Presbyterians were to ‘celebrate’ Lent, would it be called Re-lent?

    Now that I’ve defiled your site with my humor, I’ll return to the background waiting for another opportune time. Until then…


  10. It took three re-baptisms and a promise not to be Catholic to wash them from my head; however, not before Ted Turner laughed at me. (All kidding included).


  11. Not to pcik-nits (overly), but I can assure you that there are many “reformed Protestants” who “do Lent”. Now, of course they would self-identify as Anglicans (“continuing” of course, I can’t speak for the ‘other’ Anglicans), but still very much reformed and very much Protestant (in fact the old practice was to issue a Commination in the midst of the service, which can be seen here –

    I think the important distinction to make is that while the Roman “ordinance” may contain penitential overtones, the traditional Anglican service is something very different. It serves as a reminder that, as we approach Eastern, it is own own sinfulness that makes Easter necessary (eschewing a lapserian debate for the moment), and that the very ashes on our faces were those that we paraded the year before along with fickle-cries of “Hosanna”. It is this very reason that I placed the ashes on the faces in my own cure that I repeated the words of our Father, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” before adjuring them to repent and believe the Gospel, in which is their only hope of salvation.

    There is nothing necessarily “penitential” about it, but rather a somber realization that our joy in Easter must be tinged with our own mortification at our own sinfulness.

    Not to be a spoil-sport, but I don’t want to see an ancient practice of the Church get a bad rap because it was later-on spoiled by “fond” and “vainly invented” theologies, when it has the power to fold us into the larger picture of the Christian story.


  12. But Lee, Reformed Protestant celebrate Easter every week. I know my math is rusty, but a forty-day run up to a weekly Sabbath gets really complicated. Maybe that’s why God gave us Rick Warren (and the forty days of a Purpose-Driven Life).


  13. Dr. Hart,

    The forty day run-up, however, is interspersed with feast days (every Sunday in lent as in every Sunday the rest of the year) on which Anglicans feast on the Word and receive the Lord’s supper, celebrating our Lord’s death and resurrection.


  14. darryl,

    Anglicans celebrate easter every week as well, just like our reformed brothers and sisters do. The season of Lent doesn’t take away from that time every sunday where we have teaching, the law, the gospel and the eucharist.

    It was a reminder of our sin nature. My total depravity and it was a wonderful time of prayer and fellowship. Not everyone who attended a Lent service or practices Lent is a heretic.


  15. Jason: wow! Who said people who practice Lent are heretics? Can you say over reaction? Sure you can.

    But really, if you practice Easter every week, doesn’t that throw a wrench into the church calender? And what about practices of fasting during the other 316 days of the year?


  16. Darryl,

    You didn’t find any of the previous posts to be slightly condescending? Making a mockery of what lent is? Reading down the line of comments one could (as I did) conclude that many people here think we are stupid for participating in Lent. Maybe it wasn’t you personally that made a comment but my point will always go back to unity. Were is the unity in mockery? It’s usually the same on most blogs I read. Everyone has it “all figured out” and they let those of us who aren’t in their circle (the “reformed” one) know we are a bunch of fools. Implied of course.
    Then again, most “reformed” micro-theologians I come in contact with seem to have it all figured out. Or at least they think they do. I enjoy reading much of this blog and others that are “reformed” in their theology, but I can’t handle the levels of mockery towards other denominations or other christians. Many of us recite the Nicene creed every week but don’t live it.


  17. Jason: yowza! Did you give up Prozac for Lent? The original post was directed much more at low church Presbyterians who dabble in other traditions, than it was a shot at Episcopalians (though I’m not sure how authentic Lent is to Anglicanism given its own battles with highs and lows in the liturgical arena).

    As for mockery, did you just return from the space shuttle after, oh, a decade or so long trip? I thought snark was the coin of the realm in the blogosphere and the non-mainstream media. Please rest assured that it comes across much better in person with a pint in one hand a cigar in the other.


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