Ash Wednesday in the modern Evangelical Church – Revd Dr Simon Vibert
Do modern Anglican Evangelicals observe Ash Wednesday?
What is the history behind this first day of Lent?
How might it help us in our discipline and walk with the Lord?
Protestant vv Catholic tradition
Some of the caution surrounding Ash Wednesday, at least among Anglican Evangelicals, is the perception that Ash Wednesday is a Catholic practice. Cranmer strongly believed it should not be part of Church of England worship, and the imposition of Ashes was ruled illegal as recently as the 1870s (see Church Association Tract 259).
The origin of this day is unclear, but certainly dates back to the early centuries of the Church.
Modern Catholics recognise the “Imposing the ashes” on Ash Wednesday as part of a penitential service. The priest will mark the head of the worshippers with ash, created by the burnt palm crosses from the previous year.
Unrelated to corporate worship, some have taken this practice onto the streets and marked the foreheads of anyone who wishes to have the imposition of ashes.
The Reformers clearly believed that Ash Wednesday was important, although no reference is made to “ashing”, and they preferred this day to be known as “The First Day of Lent”. The following Collects brilliantly summarise the biblical principles which undergird the observance of Ash Wednesday.
Collect for Ash Wednesday (to be said every day in Lent)
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: make in us new and contrite hearts so that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (taken from The English Prayer Book)
This Collect speaks of contrition, penitence, lament, and acknowledgement of wretchedness, in order that we may receive mercy, remission and forgiveness through the Lord Jesus. The Collect reflects the themes found in the Ash Wednesday readings Joel 2: 12-17; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-6:
On this first day of Lent, the BCP readings focus on penitence and confession of sin. The symbolism of “ash” is a powerful sign of repentance in Scripture, where putting on “sackcloth and ashes” is an outward symbol of deep contrition and mourning (e.g. Matt 11:21).
Similarly, in Job 42:3-6, Job’s final response to hearing God’s words are also instructive:
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
…My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Collect for 1st Sunday of Lent
Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sake fasted forty days and forty nights, give us grace so to discipline ourselves that we may always obey your will in righteousness and true holiness to the honour and glory of your name; for you live and reign with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, being tempted by the Devil, resisting the Devil and fasting and praying. So, for the 40 Days of Lent (Ash Wednesday – Easter Saturday, Sundays excluded), we examine ourselves, deny ourselves, and repent.
The Commination is a detailed confession for Ash Wednesday.
BRETHREN, in the primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
The intention is that, having heard God’s words of admonishment and condemnation, we might all the more thoroughly repent, and seek him wholeheartedly
This rarely features in contemporary evangelical churches, perhaps because it spends quite some time on confession and sorrow, with less time on forgiveness and assurance.
Commendation and Caution
Observing Ash Wednesday as a place for self-examination and confession is helpful. It is rare, in the modern Church, to spend this time in deep confession and penitence. And rising from confession to renewed self-discipline, for duration of Lent, and even beyond (!) is surely good.
Jesus is clear in Matthew 6:16–18, that we need to be wary of exercising our spiritual disciplines for recognition and show in this life (should I really wander around town on Ash Wednesday with an Ash Cross on my forehead?). Better, we should ensure that there is a Godward focus on Ash Wednesday and that Jesus is my hope for Lent and beyond.
As with so much of the calendar and liturgical shape of the BCP, Ash Wednesday provides us with an appropriate frame of mind to prepare to “die with Christ” that we might “be raised with Christ”.