The Villager Voice ~ from Alan

At a UCC clergy meeting the other day, the conversation turned to Ash Wednesday, specifically the growing willingness of low-church Protestants (that’s us) to receive the imposition of ashes.  There was a time, not too long ago, when the whole notion was abhorrent to most Protestants, Congregationalists in particular, because after all, the Reformation “freed” us from many of the rites and rituals common to the Catholic Church. 

And it’s true:  many years ago, when I first considered using ashes at the Ash Wednesday service, my congregation always celebrated at the Episcopal church across the street (we reciprocated by hosting Good Friday), and when it came time for the ritual, hardly any members of my congregation came forward.  And I understood that.  Fast forward to today, and more worshipers than not are willing to be thus marked.  In part, I think it stems from a renewed appreciation of the meaning of rite, and of the understanding of the place and importance of ritual in worship.  There are many ways in which (in my opinion, anyway) the Reformation threw the baby out with the bath water; the use of images, of sights and sounds and yes, even scents in worship creates a near-tactile experience of the holy that we Protestants have missed out on over the past several centuries.

Still, Ash Wednesday is a conundrum of sorts.  One of my colleagues said his church always holds Ash Wednesday worship in the morning, so that the sign of the ashen cross on the forehead is worn throughout the day.  Yet at the same time, the prescribed reading for Ash Wednesday every single year is the bit from Matthew where Jesus cautions, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from God who is in heaven.”  So which is it?  Do we wear our ashes proudly through the day, or do we, as Jesus puts it, “practice our piety in secret?”

Granted, since our church observes the day at an evening service, most of us return to the privacy of our own homes after receiving the ashes, so the point is rather moot.  We know we have been so marked; God knows as well; but that’s about the extent of it.  Whatever your own personal inclination, we greet the season of Lent together this Wednesday as we sup and worship around the table beginning at 6:00 pm.  May it be the start of a Holy Lent.

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