This coming February 26, the world will see literally millions of practicing Roman Catholics emerge from Mass with a smudge of cruciform ash upon their foreheads. This practice, known as Ash Wednesday, kicks off the forty-day Lenten season of fasting and penance which leads up to the celebration of Easter. It should surprise no one at this point to see a neighbor, co-worker, or newscaster adorned with ashes. After all, this has been the Roman Catholic tradition for well over a thousand years. What is surprising, however, is the rise in popularity over the past few decades of Ash Wednesday observance among Protestants. John Calvin said that the season of Lent was merely “false zeal” and “replete with superstition.” And yet now, only a few centuries later, many of the children of the Reformation—Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, nondenominational evangelicals, and even Presbyterian and Reformed—have been incorporating this ritual into their own piety and practice. At one point, the mark of the ash was a definitive sign distinguishing Protestants and Catholics, but that is no longer the case.
So what is Ash Wednesday exactly? Where did it come from? Why have Protestants historically abstained from observing it, and why is that trend changing? My hope is that this brief article will be an opportunity for us to dive further into this popular practice, so that we can know what we believe about Ash Wednesday, and why we believe it.
Where Did It Come from, and What Does It Mean?
The season of Lent traces its roots back to the 4th century. The Council of Nicea in 325, which famously produced the creed by the same name, also produced a number of canons of a more practical nature. The fifth canon makes a passing reference to “Lent,” which would suggest the practice was in some sense established by that point. Lent is the forty-day period of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter, hence it is known as quadragesima in Latin: “the forty.”
This season of fasting, echoing Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness, was perhaps first used only for adult converts as a form of discipleship to lead up to their baptism and entrance into the visible church on Easter. However, over the years it grew into a practice observed by all the laity leading up to Resurrection Sunday. Another change came in the late 6th century when Gregory the Great suggested Sundays should not be included in the forty day fast, as they were still feast days. This new way of counting forty back from Easter (excluding Sundays) is how Wednesday became the start of the Lenten season.
Where did the ashes come from? As Lent was a concerted season of turning from sin and growing in love and dependence on Christ, a symbol of repentance was fitting. Ashes and dust were therefore considered appropriate on several counts: dust represents human mortality and our need for eternal life (Genesis 3:19, 18:27); ashes are a biblical symbol for grief and mourning (Esther 4:1); more specifically, ashes are a biblical symbol for grief and mourning over sin (Job 42:6, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:5-6). In this way, ashes were, and are today, considered appropriate to mark a of season of grief over sin and humility before the Lord. And thus, millions of worshipers will attend a Mass that concludes by coming forward for the “imposition of the ash” by the priest.
Increasing Popularity Among Protestants
As mentioned earlier, the Reformers saw no need to continue observance of Ash Wednesday or the subsequent Lenten season, feeling it was manufactured piety. Zwingli defended the rights of his parishioners to eat regularly so they had energy for their manual labor. Calvin notes that Jesus’ temptation and time in the wilderness is not to be repeated; it is “an example, by which he may raise all to admire rather than study to imitate him.” But perhaps the best response to this practice came at the very dawn of the Reformation, in the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, where he writes, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Luther was calling out the Church on perpetuating the idea that adherence to their sacraments and instituted methods was how one would fulfill Christ’s call to repent. Rather, the repentance that God desires from us is a Spirit-wrought repentance: daily dying to sin and daily growing in gospel grace (Matthew 9:13; cf Hosea 6:6). The Word and the Spirit were powerful enough for that, the Reformers argued. There was no need for man-made schemes that, no matter how well-intentioned, distracted worshipers from the glory of Christ and the power of His Spirit within us.
Have we lost that conviction today? At one point, the ashen cross was the distinguishing mark between Catholics and Protestants. But this is no longer the case. Why is it that ash-wearing is almost just as commonplace among Roman Catholics as it is across the ecclesiastical border with Methodists, Lutherans, and even mainline Presbyterian and Reformed worshipers? I am not saying there is never a place for extra-biblical disciplines that may benefit one in their personal Christian walk. I imagine we all have, to some extent or another, engrained practices that benefit us spiritually. But it is quite another thing when these extra-biblical practices become part of the church’s worship.
Since the 1990s, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Common Worship has included Ash Wednesday service forms. Similarly, The Worship Sourcebook (second edition, 2013) has forty pages of suggested prayers, readings, and Scripture passages for the seasons of Ash Wednesday and Lent. The Worship Sourcebook is published by The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, a branch of Calvin University which was founded by the Dutch Reformed.
Filling a Void that Shouldn’t be There
It could be that the rise in this ritual in Presbyterian and Reformed circles is due to a dearth in our own liturgical practice. Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season offer a time for Christians to openly grieve and mourn their sin. It gives them a tangible opportunity to come face-to-face with their transgressions and return to God’s mercy in Christ. But a properly biblical and Reformed worship service offers that to faithful believers every single Sunday, not just for a brief season once a year.
Sadly, confession and repentance are foreign concepts in many of our churches today. Perhaps motivated by some form of a church growth or seeker-sensitive model, many Presbyterian and Reformed churches have ditched the reading of the law, the confession of sin, and the declaration of the pardon from their liturgies. Similarly, psalms of lament are rarely read or sung, and most worship songs have a predictively upbeat and happy feel. The reason for this is simple enough: church leaders want to remove anything that might make attendees feel awkward or uncomfortable. Indeed, these moments can make us feel uncomfortable—but they’re supposed to. Sin isn’t comfortable, and we are not solving the problem of sin by not talking about it.
While it might grow the numbers to avoid these more somber moments, we are depriving the human soul of a much-needed cathartic relief when they are removed from the service. King David recognized this. He said that to abstain from confession was tantamount to a slow, painful death: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4). In terms of our sin, silence will mean suffering. But the moment we open our hearts and our mouths and confess our guilt, we receive healing. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (verse 5).
One of the greatest gifts of worship is the curative power of confession. Might it be that Protestants are turning to a place where they can openly grieve because we lack emotional breadth in most of our worship services? If we recover that very needed, cathartic rhythm of repentance and forgiveness in the worship service people wouldn’t need to go and manufacture their own.
Likewise, a more robust sacramental theology would be helpful here. One of the things that the ashes represent is the fact that we have died with Christ. Ash and dust are a sign of death, and in Christ’s death upon the cross we have died to sin. But this is precisely what baptism teaches us: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3–4). Baptism is such a greater symbol of this reality. For one, it is a one-time event, just like our regeneration is a one-time event. And it is ordained by God, instituted by Christ for His church, and used in vital, life-giving ways by the Holy Spirit. Ashes can’t claim that kind of power.
The sacraments have always had the threat of being disdained for their simplicity. Will we in faith rely on God’s ordinary means for our sanctification, or will we try to come up with something extraordinary that God Himself does not approve nor recognize as virtuous?
Look out Christmas and Easter!
It is commonly recognized that in the Roman Catholic Church the Ash Wednesday Mass is more popular than any other day in the Christian calendar—surpassing even Christmas or Easter. That’s a staggering thought to this pastor: a day that could fill the church pews more so than Christmas or Easter? How can that be?
Well, it is not that surprising if you stop and think about it. On Ash Wednesday, unlike these other holy days, you actually are doing something. There is a tangible participation in the worship—perhaps more appealing is the visible demonstration of piety. Is it surprising that law-wired sinners would flee to something like this? Going to church on Christmas to hear that the King has come, or on Easter to hear that the King has conquered, pales in comparison when you can where a badge that says you belong to that King.
Carl Trueman fears that Ash Wednesday “speaks of a certain carnality: the desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.” Trueman is spot-on at identifying the underlying motives of the human heart. We are always looking for something that we can do and, better yet, something that we can show.
This Ash Wednesday we will see many people—more and more of them Protestant—putting a spirituality on display that actually lacks the presence of the Spirit. This can serve as a healthy challenge for the Presbyterian and Reformed, as it provides an opportunity for us to turn once again to God’s simple, unremarkable, and ordinary means of grace, and to put our faith in finding God where He promises to show up. These means have no flare, no attraction, and nothing about them would turn the heads of the public. But they do have Christ. In simple word, sacrament, and prayer we receive Jesus, really and truly. Isn’t that enough?
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20
 For a more detailed historical account of this practice, see Nicholas V. Russo, “The Early History of Lent,” The Center for Christian Ethics, 2013, pp. 18-26, (https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf)
 Our English term comes from the Old English lencten, which means “lengthen”—as this is the time of the year the days lengthen, but it is also meant to indicate that through the ritual our souls grow in faith, hope, and love.
 Calvin, Institutes 4.12.20