Yesterday many Christians around the world observed Ash Wednesday. We did not, simply because I was not ready for it this year. I never did as a child either. Southern Baptists were all about not doing anything that might look “catholic” and Ash Wednesday certainly fell into that category.
In fact its not something I would really participate in until I was an adult. I still find it a bit odd, not something I am yet really used to doing. Thus, like most everything else, I analyze it.
The ashes are put there to remind us of our sin, our failings, and our need, to prepare us for Easter. Accepting the mark is to both confess our state and our need for the savior represented by the cross. It is, in some sense, a re-proclamation of baptism.
What do I see and how am I seen? I see the ashes on the heads of others and, feeling the itch on my own, I acknowledge that we are the same. I am in need of a Savior, even as they are. I am not more or less than they. I cannot see my own smudge to even attempt comparison, should I somehow be misled into it.
Yet this is only true within the context of the community. Should I go among those who do not practice ashes am I still humbly acknowledging a common weakness? Or am I proclaiming some kind of self-righteousness? Have I become like the Pharisee with the giant phylacteries and super long prayer tassels? Is the sign of my sin turned into a badge of pride?
Perhaps, or not. We must fall back on that great answer of the wise “It depends.”
Connections with the long history of Christianity are good, far more vital than many Protestant leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries seem to have believed. We loose out when forget the past, or throw it out in an effort to create new identity.
Yet we must also constantly examine these things. Questions their purpose and worth and message.
If the church wants to continue to be a force in society, we must be willing to continue to provide meaningful experiences and direction. Not seeking to be relevant, but seeking to be real.
Whether we keep the practices of Ash Wednesday or not, we must keep the truth of the need for public humility, confession, and repentance. These are the things that have given the church strength when we embraced them and their lack brings our ruin.
We all fall down.