March 02, 2017
Not all churches in our denomination do it.
Not all protestant churches do it.
Fewer still contemporary non-denominational churches do it.
On Wednesday, we acknowledged the ancient church tradition of Ash Wednesday. We offered four opportunities for people to come for a brief service that explained the custom, gave a chance to pray, a brief meditation on scripture, sing and receive the imposition of ashes.
An Ash Wednesday service is an ancient ritual. It is usually celebrated in more liturgical churches. For many who have grown up in the Christian Reformed denomination it “isn’t something that we do.”
In today’s world, we have left behind a lot of old traditions in the name of modernizing and appealing to a younger generation. I understand that and I am a proponent of doing so. If we fail to change, we may lose a generation of people in the church. Certainly the data indicates that is happening. We are a shrinking denomination. We are not reaching a new generation of people as a whole. Blind denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. Our congregation is an anomaly. We continue to grow and we attract young families.
Yet we continue to sprinkle in the rituals of the ancient church. Ash Wednesday has a powerful significance. Here is what we say about Ash Wednesday … “Ashes are a symbol of our repentance, of our desire to turn back to God. Ashes demonstrate our solidarity with Jesus, and with his journey to the cross and through the grave. The sign of the cross in ashes is Christ’s own signature on us that we belong to Him.”
That’s powerful stuff.
Ashes are also humbling. I received the imposition of ashes on my forehead at 6:30 a.m. It means that everywhere I went for the rest of the day I had a big black splotch in my forehead. I got a few curious stares, a few “Oh, that’s right, it’s Ash Wednesday,” and I’m sure some who just shook their heads at such a strange custom. I never walk around with a black cross drawn on my forehead. I caught myself wondering what others thought, but not caring. Walking around with a black cross on my forehead was a symbol of the fact that I really don’t have to care about what other people think of me. I only need to identify with Jesus.
I had the honor of imposing ashes at a couple of our services. People came forward: singles and couples, whole families, boyfriends with girlfriends, infants and teens, long-time members of our congregation and people from other congregations in the area, people I knew well and people I didn’t recognize, elected leaders in our congregation and others whose names I didn’t know. They came with somber looks, humility,and tears It was a sacred moment in which I felt honored to participate. As we imposed ashes, we repeated the words of Genesis 3:19, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
That’s a sobering phrase. It is a reminder that we are not “all that.”
But even though we are dust, God thinks highly enough of us to send his only Son to die for us and grant us eternal life!
In Jim Collins classic book, From Good to Great, he introduces the concept of “the genius of AND.” Collins writes: “Embrace both extremes on a number of dimensions at the same time. Instead of choosing A or B, figure out how to have A AND B—purpose AND profit, continuity AND change, freedom AND responsibility, etc.”
There is benefit for us to embrace contemporary forms of worship AND ancient, meaningful traditions.
Life is about making choices. For many there is only the option of either/or, but others allow us to embrace the “genius of AND.”