Huh? A Baptist who celebrates Ash Wednesday? That’s like an American celebrating Boxing Day. The two just don’t go together.
Despite the misnomer, Baptists do celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent, especially this Baptist. Two of the classic Baptist distinctives is local autonomy and soul liberty. Each Baptist church has the freedom to worship however the church sees fit. Since we Baptists do not have a book of worship or order, like other denominations, Baptists are free to worship as they feel led. This of course does not happen in a vacuum. I have always believed that Baptists must be led by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) with scripture being the final authority.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. The goal of Ash Wednesday is to reflect upon our humanness, our need for forgiveness, and our connection to Christ’s last days. These themes are symbolized by the imposition of ashes on the forehead, with the words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return…” during the worship service. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of penitence and mourning. Job was known for placing ashes upon his head to mourn the loss of his family.
Sure, Catholics do it, but that does not mean that we become Catholic if we receive ashes. We are merely participating in the greater historical liturgical practices of Christians. There is nothing magical about the ashes. You are not any more holy for participating in Ash Wednesday, but it is just another way to experience the presence of God in our lives in a symbolic way.
But, where did this act of worship and repentance on Ash Wednesday come from? Christianity Today provides some insight:
Sometime around the ninth or tenth century, this 40-day Lenten discipline merged with another service the church had developed several hundred years earlier to help sinners embody their repentance. Those who had fallen into what the early church considered serious sin—everything from committing adultery to serving in the military to performing magic and occult practices—after confessing that sin were enrolled in an “order of penitents” until they had made restitution.
Throughout centuries, Lent was mandatory. To punish one’s self, through fasting or self-flagellation, was a way of identifying with Christ’s suffering. Most contemporary Christians have gotten away from these early requirements of punishment and have seen the value of participating freely in Lent. Marking the season of Lent enables us to find new and exciting ways to encounter God through the spiritual life. Sometimes, people give up something during Lent as a way to remind one’s self what Lent is about. Giving up something for Lent can be creative. For example you give up a meal during Lent and the extra money that would go to the meal could be given to a group, such as World Vision, which works to end hunger worldwide. As an alternative, try adding something during Lent, such as daily Bible reading, trying a new ministry in church, times of prayer, or taking a course of study.
Sometime around the Reformation, practicing Lent and Ash Wednesday had fallen out of favor:
During the Protestant Reformation, the practice of Ash Wednesday soon died out in Reformed churches, which suppressed the church year in general due to a desire not to see one day as holier than another and a concern that people commonly marked feast days with too much feasting and associated frivolities. (Even Easter and Christmas were seen as problematic for these reasons.)… Ash Wednesday did not, however, carry over into those free-church traditions that developed out of the Anglican context, such as Methodists and Baptists. Modern celebrations of Ash Wednesday in these traditions date from the liturgical ferment following Vatican II, when both Roman Catholics and Protestants began to take a much greater interest in each other’s liturgical traditions—and in the
necessity of actions to speak the Gospel to the senses just as words spoke it to the brain.
Christians from all denominations Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists have rediscovered the value that Lent and Ash Wednesday can provide. The liturgical worship movement is a movement of compassion, experiential and participatory worship, image based, and connective community. Every church has a liturgy, no matter “high” or “low” the church is. A liturgy is a set order or worship, whether printed or unprinted. Following the liturgy seeks to bring the lay person and the minister in to equal action in worship.
So can Baptists celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent? Yes, and Steven R. Harmon, author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, Frederica Mathewes-Green, the author of The Jesus Prayer, and Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, suggest why Christians should care about Lent:
Can Baptists observe Lent? All Baptist congregations observe some sort of calendar in their worship. Though many Baptists may profess that they “judge all days to be alike,” in reality they do “judge one day to be better than another” (Rom. 14:5), as many expect certain days and seasons of the year to be recognized in worship services. Some of these, like Christmas and Easter, are the inheritance of the patristic church. Other special dates on the calendar of a Baptist church reflect the secular calendar. If Baptists already observe a calendar without worrying that such observances are unbiblical and hinder congregational freedom, and if they have already granted pride of place in this calendar to two feasts of patristic origin, then they can observe the Christian year, including Lent.
…these special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’s saving work. Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence. I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ’s person and work. (link)
Celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent can be a meaningful way to encounter God’s love, grace, and mercy in our lives. Ash Wednesday is a day in which we examine ourselves, understand our morality, seek new spiritual ways of reaching out to God, and experience our need for forgiveness.
May you, on this Ash Wednesday, receive ashes with the words, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return” with all compassion and forgiveness. May you receive this symbol as a reminder of how we need to ask God to, “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”