Today is Ash Wednesday. Catholic parishes across the country often see some of the largest crowds of the year on this day. Even though it is not a “holy day of obligation” (a mandatory service) many people, including those nominal/ cultural types who seldom visit church, make a special trip to their local parish to be marked with an ashen cross on their foreheads. In what follows I will offer a word about the history of this tradition and a couple of ways that evangelical Protestants can respond to it.
Catholics look to the Old Testament as the origin of the practice of marking oneself with ashes. It says for instance in Jeremiah 6:26, “Oh, daughter of my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes” (see also Isa. 58:5; Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:6). The New Testament picks up this theme emphasizing ashes as a sign of repentance. For instance, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13). While the opening Millennium had just a few references to ashes in Christian liturgy, it was in the 12th Century when the modern tradition of burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday and applying their charred remains to the penitent developed.
The first response of evangelicals toward Catholic observers of Ash Wednesday is to encourage them in the gospel. Let me explain. Because so many cultural Catholics not only have ashes applied to their foreheads but then also wear the mark faithfully throughout the day (an amazing thing for someone who doesn’t regularly practice his faith) the best response is to ask honest, humble questions: “What is the meaning of Ash Wednesday?” “I understand that it is a sign of repentance; what happens in your relationship with God as a result?” The purpose of these questions is not to refute the practice as something that is extra-Biblical…. Rather, you want to help your friend or loved one recognize to a greater extent that realities of the gospel—the substitutionary death and resurrection of our Lord that is accessed by faith alone.
Our second response to Ash Wednesday, certainly of equal importance to the first, must be honest self evaluation with a view to our own personal repentance. Every time I see someone walking down the sidewalk or through the office with ashes on his forehead it is an opportunity for me to pause and reflect on my own need for a Savior. It is a valuable reminder to all of us that we live in between the ages, looking forward in faith to the return of our Christ when sin and death will be removed forever and ashes will be no more.