Many evangelicals believe that Lent, and thus Ash Wednesday, are Roman Catholic celebrations. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this instance the "evangelical sub-culture" has misinformed multitudes of people to embrace a reactionary response against church tradition.
I was pleased to see in the news today that several non-liturgical congregations in my suburban Chicago area were actually holding Ash Wednesday services. So far as I can tell this is further evidence that liturgical celebration is spreading into places where it was once taboo. This, I believe, is a very good thing.
Lent is the season of forty days that comes before Easter. It is generally considered a "fast" time though various traditions deal with the "fasting" part of this celebration quite differently. Originally embraced by some Protestants the Reformed only began to embrace such seasons in the 20th century. Now others are following this pattern as Baptists, and other non-liturgical churches, consider the value of placing more emphasis upon ordinary time and the rhythmical cycles put before us by the church calendar. There is undeniable value in such patterns and practices but many good people still react because they do not find a "proof-text" to defend this. (This "proof-texting" is common to all anti-liturgical traditions and tends to make a hodge-podge of the Bible's bigger, fuller message.)
Today is the first day of Lent in the West, commonly called Ash Wednesday. The ashes are placed upon a person's forehead in the sign of the cross. The statement made is: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The purpose is to call us to remember that we came from the dust and we will return to it, being mortal creatures. We are thus welcomed to a "Lenten Journey" on this Ash Wednesday.
This is my third consecutive year of participating in Ash Wednesday and Lent. Each year there has been a different work that God has desired to do in my own soul as I have entered into this fast. Because we are all called to struggle against everything that takes us away from the love of God and neighbor repentance, fasting, works of mercy and holy love are all part of the discipline of Lent. These help us to wage spiritual warfare. On this day we recommit ourselves to this struggle and confess our sins, asking the Father to grant us strength to persevere in our Lenten discipline.
God tells his people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). The gift of this day is one of personal reflection, a time of confession, a time to change and to face our certain death with hope. Today begins a journey of hope that leads to Calvary and Easter. From facade to faith, we sanctify a fast (Joel 2:15) thus seeking to address our voracious consumption by following a new path of self-denial and grace.
The smudge of ashes placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross reminded me that I will die. I belong to Christ and he is my only hope in life and in death. Such symbols of piety can be transformed into masks that hide the real me from the world behind a prideful religious facade. But the sign of the cross, made with ash, can also be a powerful reminder, in my own human flesh, of the grace of God. This is how I sought to receive it at the noon service I attended today.