Earlier this week, the 40-day season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday when worshipers gathered in churches to receive from priest or pastor a smudge of ashes on the forehead signifying godly sorrow, repentance and one’s mortality.
In an effort to be more responsive to people’s busy lives a church in Detroit, Mich., held a drive-by Ash Wednesday Service where commuters drove past the church, rolled down their window, leaned out of the car and received the ashes.
Fewer people are finding their way into sanctuaries or cathedrals on Ash Wednesday. It’s a work day, there is dinner to prepare, school work to complete, pets to feed, etc., and it’s tougher for people to attend an Ash Wednesday service regardless of the hour. I read about one pastor who took the ashes into the city park where she approached passersby to offer this sign of repentance.
Whatever reactions one has to these creative Lenten offerings, they are a far cry from the services of our spiritual ancestors. For the first 500-800 years of the church, Lent was set aside for those who needed to do formal penance prior to receiving the Lord’s Supper again at Easter. Somewhere in the 900s, the season became a 40-day period of devotion for all followers of Christ, a change which moved in the right direction. Every one of us needs to practice some form of confession and penance.
The Ash Wednesday services of 1,000 years ago would have been far more severe than the services we offer today. In those older services, the bishop would mix water, wine, salt and ashes and then sprinkle the altar and walls of the church to purify the church prior to consecrating it with holy oil.
Although church custodians might not like cleaning up after this kind of service, there’s something quite fitting in remembering that the church collectively needs to repent of sin alongside the individual members of the Body of Christ. Sometimes the church gets too triumphant and self righteous.
It was also the practice in these earlier Ash Wednesday services for the priest to denounce sin and sinner, read seven penitential Psalms and Moses’ curses from Deuteronomy 27: 15-25, as well as cite many other biblical texts on judgment and repentance. This would have been no happy-clappy service of joy and elation.
One thousand years ago, no peasant would have been invited to ride past the steps of the church on a donkey to receive an ash-drawn sign of the cross on the forehead, nor would priests have strolled through the public square distributing ashes. One took a deep breath, entered the church and received a heavy dose of biblical teaching on sin, repentance and mortality.
Times change and the church creatively responds. But the need for ashes and repentance remains. One hopes the church can retain these essential teachings even as it adapts to changing times.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.