I grew up among Baptist and Church of Christ folk in far west Kentucky. We knew all about revivals, Bibles, and baptisms; but it was years before I knew about Lent, and ashes, and the call to repentance. Even when I did learn, perhaps on a campus or somewhere overseas, I assumed such ceremonies were for Catholics, mainly, and a few others religious groups I knew nothing about.
But now, Lent is everywhere, even in the Baptist church I attend here in Georgia. The Ashes fill up my Facebook page so that it seems everyone, everywhere is walking around today with the smudge on their forehead and a word of witness about what it means.
Which is not be a bad idea, because we all need Lent. Not just Catholics or liturgical Christians or even progressive Baptists: all of us; and I mean the Christian, the Jew, and the Muslim, just like we all need sabbath, and we all need to get on our knees five times a day and pray to the God who hears and sees and cares.
Lent is about humility, and humanity, and the help we all need. It is about living in this world of struggle and strife, of fightings without and fears within, as both the gospel word (2 Corinthians 7:5) and the gospel song (“Amazing Grace”) assert. It is about surviving and thriving in the human community scattered across this fascinating globe.
Everybody needs the ashes of Lent, which is why I like the occasional story about “Ashes for All” or “Ashes on the Go”—which describes robed ministers standing on street corners and open air markets to offer the Ashes to anyone and everyone.
A person need not be a Christian—or even religious—to bend the knee and bow the head to receive the Ashes. Who among us does not need to repent, to change our attitudes and actions, to leave one path and go in another, to be the people we are intended to be? Surely, I do, and I suspect you do as well, although neither of us would be quite as willing to announce publicly our sinful ways in order to embrace the future we want.
In this sense, the Ashes are like the Prayer, that great Prayer that Jesus gave us—gave the world—which begins, “Our father in heaven, holy be your name” and continues to call us to surrender, to trust, to reconciliation, and to resistance to all kinds of evil. It is not a Christian prayer: no mention of Jesus, or church, or cross, or salvation, or anything, really—just a tour de force of all that is earthy and human, and therefore holy.
When I pray the Prayer, I pause to ask: who is included in that very first word, “our” ? And who is excluded from that petition, “Give us … “? The answers are, of course, everybody and nobody. It is a universal Prayer, a Prayer for all people everywhere, at all times (to employ the famous phrase of St Vincent of Lerins).
The Prayer is the gift of God to all the people of the world; and the Ashes are the same—they are for everyone, everywhere, at all times.
It is too bad that these rituals—like the Ashes and the Prayer—are so connected with one religious tradition that other people cannot receive them freely and warmly. Both may signal a conversion, of sorts, but not necessarily to or from Christianity—but perhaps, more broadly, a conversion from prejudice, or addiction, or arrogance, or wastefulness, or any of the deadly sins that infect the human spirit anywhere and everywhere.
The Ashes signal our desire to live better, to love broadly, to give generously, to pray faithfully, to sing joyfully, even occasionally to dance with abandon. These are all things the human spirit needs, especially as we watch the four horsemen that ride so continuously around the globe—conquest, war, famine, and death. And if disease is not on that scriptural list (Revelations 6:1-8) we must add it, here on the brink of a global pandemic!
So, with or without a mask covering your face, find somebody, somewhere to take the Ashes and mark your face as one both repenting and rejoicing, both turning away and turning toward, resolving to live in a more hopeful, helpful world. In that spirit, any day and every day came be Ash Wednesday.