So today Lauren Winner is going to stand in front of Duke University Hospital offering Ash Wednesday services to passersby. Why? Because
there is something about Ash Wednesday — the day the church sets aside for people to acknowledge, before God and one another, our mortality, our finitude and our moral failings — that suggests taking this particular liturgical action into the streets (besides following, as it does, the public revelry of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday). We are going into public with our ashes because Jesus died in public. He didn’t die in the Upper Room surrounded only by his disciples.I should point out that Ash Wednesday has some very good aspects to it. The Book of Common Prayer includes an excellent prayer for the occasion:
We confess our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people ... our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work ... our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.The question is, how does one get from such solid theology to a priestess smearing ashes on the foreheads of random people one day out of the year? I would suggest that it is by forgetting the true heart of Christianity, the evangelical Gospel that
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15)The result of this Gospel is both positive and negative. On the negative side,
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day... Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:16, 20-23)We are free from all regulations, rites, and rituals. How, then, are Christians to publically display what Christ has done for us? How do we reflect the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection?
Our public display of the Gospel is not to be a once-a-year blotch on our heads, but rather the new lives that come with forgiveness and regeneration. Our war against our own sin, and our kindness, compassion, and love for others are to mark us and God's people. I won't go so far as to say that participating in Ash Wednesday is sinful (I don't think that it is), I will say that I find it hard to see how such rituals are anything but a distraction from the true heart of the Christian Gospel. As Christians we should strive to reflect this Gospel every day in our lives, not once a year on our foreheads.Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:1-17)