Three Throwback Options for Ash Wednesday

There is now less than a month until Ash Wednesday. Most traditions, including my own United Methodist Church, have a standard liturgy for a worship service on that day. However, if you’re looking to change things up a bit this year, there are some interesting tweaks you can make that will stay true to the history and tradition of Ash Wednesday.

I am primarily indebted to J. Neil Alexander’s Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons for the content of this post, as he expounds upon the development of Ash Wednesday in this book.

Switch up the Gospel Text

Lent did not always start on Ash Wednesday, but instead began on Quadragesima Sunday, falling 40 days before Good Friday and 42 days before Easter Sunday. Since fasting is generally not required on Sundays in Lent, the first fast day was the Monday after Quadragesima Sunday. Alexander notes that the Gospel text selected by the church for that day — the beginning of Lenten fasting — was Luke 18:10-14.

At some point in the sixth century, the church moved to standardize Lent. This resulted in the familiar 40-days-minus-Sundays formula that moved the first fast day to Ash Wednesday. However, no corresponding change was made to the lectionary. The Matthew 6 passage that had been on the Wednesday before Lent suddenly became the Gospel passage for the start of Lent.

The original set up makes sense. Matthew 6, which has Jesus instructing his disciples on how to pray and practice disciplines correctly, is a perfect passage to prepare us for how to practice Lent. Luke 18, in which Jesus contrasts the prideful prayer of a Pharisee with the repentant prayer of a tax collector, is a perfect passage demonstrating the spirit of the season.

There is likely some good reason for why the lectionary change was not made and for why that setup has been maintained. Yet Alexander, a theological school dean and former Episcopal bishop, sees it as a potential coincidence and voices his hope that future revisions will at the very least restore Luke 18 as an option for the beginning of Lent.

Should you choose to go with Luke 18 on Ash Wednesday, you also avoid the odd tension of receiving the visible mark of ashes within minutes of hearing Jesus tell us not to make our disciplines visible. The next two tweaks will also help with this quandary.

Rearrange the Worship Elements

Alexander explains that the traditional structure for Ash Wednesday began with a call to a holy Lent, continued with the imposition of ashes, and then moved into the readings and preaching. He writes:

The older structure of the rite that placed the imposition of ashes before the readings enables the ritual to unfold in an action-reflection mode that gives the preacher powerful grounds upon which to call for repentance and to ground the keeping of Lent in a deep ritual moment. (Alexander, p. 95)

The common pattern of ending with the imposition of ashes is obviously not a bad thing, as it is the pattern in many officially recommended liturgies. It follows the familiar pattern of offering a response to the word read and proclaimed.

The ashes are meant to emphasize our sinfulness and mortality. By placing them after the Scriptures and message, it reinforces the idea that any relationship we have to God is only because of and in response to God. God’s word is what reveals to us our sinfulness and mortality, and so we receive the ashes as a sign that we have heard and acknowledged this truth. However, Alexander sees significance in confronting our sinfulness and mortality first, followed by hearing the good news of the Gospel as an answer to the problem of sin and death.

This structure would also help to alleviate the tension somewhat with Matthew 6, if you choose to keep the assigned Gospel. The ashes are seen more clearly as a sign of our sinfulness and mortality and less like a visible sign of our faithfulness and discipline, which Jesus cautions against.

Sprinkle Instead of Smudge

I will say straight away that this is the one tweak you are least likely to make. It is also the one that may cause the most discomfort for those attending the service — and not the good, convicting discomfort but distracting discomfort. Alexander describes the historical practice of ashes being sprinkled upon heads rather than smudged onto foreheads. This provided an image that was meant to remind worshipers of dirt being tossed into a grave. It also avoids the visible sign on the face that contends with Matthew 6.

However, as you might guess, this was a practice usually reserved for men. When women received ashes, it was smudged on their foreheads — likely due to the fact that they were required to cover their heads in worship at the time.

As I noted earlier, I get the sense that this practice might be odd for modern worship-goers. It is already out of the everyday experience enough that there is physical contact with our faces. If we start sprinkling ashes into people’s hair, it seems like something people may choose not to participate in.

However, it is fairly common for the ashes to be mixed with a binder, like olive oil, to make a dark and visible paste. This is how I imposed ashes as both a college campus minister and local church pastor. By keeping the ashes dry, it can perhaps still maintain some of the effect of the grave imagery. It will also result in a less-visible mark (again, Matthew 6…). If you do use a binder, however, avoid water as it can cause irritation and even burning for some people!

Header image by Flickr user John Ragai. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.

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