Our annual Ash Wednesday service will take place in the Sanctuary on March 6 at 6 p.m. This service marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time in which Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate the hope that is ours because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While we do not impose ashes as a part of our service, we do join with the larger Christian Church in considering our own mortality and our need to repent of our sins, while looking to the salvation that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. To learn more about Ash Wednesday, read Dr. Kely Hatley's post below about Ash Wednesday and the Baptist tradition.
Following Epiphany is the special day of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. These two segments of the Christian Year are probably the most recognized (for Baptists) after Advent and Christmas, although Ash Wednesday is most likely the least observed, understood, or acknowledged. Because there is no reference in the Bible that indicates that we should observe Ash Wednesday, the day becomes problematic for Baptists. There are, however, several scriptures that refer to the use of ashes and the purposes for which they were imposed (applied to an outwardly visible part of the body).
Biblical uses of ashes are found in Job 42:6, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Note also Daniel 9:3, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” Another reference is found in Esther 4:1, “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” In the first two scripture examples, the ashes were used as an outward sign to signify an inward repentance to the Lord. In the case of the passage from Esther, Mordecai used the ashes to display his submission, grief, and despair over the order for the annihilation of the Jews by the official, Haman. In each case, it is safe to say that the ashes show humility, and submission.
One of the focal passages read during traditional Ash Wednesday services is from the book of Joel 2:12, “‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’” This passage of scripture sets the tone for the season of Lent and abruptly seizes Christians, snatching us out of the daily grind of our lives and making us face the sins that we have committed. For many, the imposition of ashes continues to be an effective outward sign of an inward confession of sin in our lives today as we ask for God to help us overcome it.
One of the most thought provoking scriptures on sin that I have come to use in my own life is Genesis 4:7. In this scripture, God is addressing Cain over his anger at the Lord’s dissatisfaction with his offering. God tells Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
Ash Wednesday helps us to face our sins that desire to have us. The imposition of ashes in some churches allows Christians to participate in an outward sign that signifies humility before the Lord and the realization that we are not immortal.
Over the years, an additional theme supporting the use of the ashes has risen as the most prominent in many traditional Ash Wednesday services. That theme is humanity’s mortality. In Genesis 3:19, God tells Adam because of his sin, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
During the imposition of ashes in some Ash Wednesday services, ministers make a sign of the cross on the forehead of each individual reciting the words of that verse, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” This haunting saying poignantly reminds each of us that at some time, though the hour is not known, we will all face physical death. Laurence Hull Stookey gets to the heart of the matter of mortality in his explanation of Ash Wednesday as he wrote,
“This harsh medicine of reality is intended to set in motion a reconsideration of the meaning of life and death - apart from Christ and in Christ. Ashes, the sign of death, are put on the forehead not in some random pattern but in the shape of a cross. This alters the starkness of the message, which thus becomes: ‘You will die. You cannot change that. But you can die in Christ, whose death transforms your own demise. Meanwhile, live in Christ and discover Christ’s new life, which conquers death.’”1
The themes of Ash Wednesday, repentance and the relationship between man’s mortality and the importance of what people do with Christ in their lives, are not foreign to Baptists, who have long emphasized repenting and turning from sin in the Christian’s life. The Abstract of Principles, a set of faculty guidelines written by Basil Manly Jr. for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY in 1859, states that,
“Repentance is an evangelical grace, wherein a person being, by the Holy Spirit, made sensible of the manifold evil of his sin, humbleth himself for it, with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrence, with a purpose and endeavor to walk before God so as to please Him in all things.”2
Fisher Humphreys wrote,
“In the background of Southern Baptist beliefs are the ideas that there is one God and that God created the world. The world has fallen into sin, so the Father sent the Son into the world to save sinners. Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and rose again. The greatest decision in every person’s life is what to do about Jesus Christ. God wants everyone to be saved, and everyone can be saved by putting his or her faith in Christ.“3
How do these quotes help to connect Baptists to Ash Wednesday? The two themes of the Ash Wednesday service are woven into Baptist life through scriptural teaching on repentance and mortality. Two of the doctrinal themes for Baptists are those of the need for individual repentance and of the importance for individual choice in responding to Jesus Christ before he or she dies. The themes of Ash Wednesday and the doctrinal themes of Baptists unite together easily here. Because of the intense evangelistic Baptist view and the concern for the condition for each person’s soul, Christian and nonbeliever, Baptists can observe this solemn service knowing that it can be used by the Holy Spirit in a powerful way to bring about repentance and change in each person’s life. While we do not practice the imposition of ashes on believers as a part of our Ash Wednesday Service, we do join with other believers around the world as we remember our mortality, consider our need for repentance, and hold fast to the hope that is ours through salvation by faith in Christ.
1. Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee 1996), 85.
2. Basil Manly, Jr., Abstract of Principles; available from <http://www.founders.org/journal/fj01/abstract.html>; Internet; accessed 23 May 2008.
3. Fisher Humphreys, The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed and What It Means To Us All (Smyth and Helwys Publishing, Macon, GA 2002) 104.