Water and Ashes Do Not Mix!
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. More and more congregations are including "The Imposition of Ashes" in their worship on Ash Wednesday. It makes sense to do this, given the name of the day and the service; but the truth is many Protestant churches have held the service without the use of ashes.
One of the reasons a number of Protestants rejected this practice was that is seemed directly to conflict with the gospel lesson that had been assigned for this day for centuries. In Matthew 6, Jesus clearly instructs his disciples not to fast like the hypocrites, those who publicly disfigure their faces and make a public display to show everyone else that they are fasting. Instead, he says, look the best you can, so your fasting is not evident to others, but only to your Father in heaven. Why then would it be consistent to disfigure one's face in public by using ashes on the first day of Lent?
John Wesley himself, in the prayer book he sent over and that was adopted by Methodists, did not even include a season called Lent in his Calendar of Sundays and Holy Days, although he did retain the same readings for the Christian year as were used in the Church of England.
With all of this Protestant and Wesleyan witness, why even let ashes be an option in our ritual?
Several reasons might be cited. In addition to the exegetical reasons cited, there was in fact some measure of anti-Catholic sentiment in some Methodist ritual decisions to keep the Ash Wednesday service more as an occasion for admonitory preaching that participatory ritual action. Restoring the option of the use of ashes, which are used in many circles (Protestant and Catholic), could be a way toward greater solidarity with our ecumenical partners on this day.
Another is a different understanding, not of the teaching of Jesus (which is affirmed as much by those who use ashes as by those who do not!), but of the meaning and value of an embodied ritual of repentance on this day in the context of Christian worship that has continuity with our Christian and Jewish heritage. Those who follow this interpretation would suggest that using the ashes in worship is a meaningful ritual action of Christian people with their God and one another, and so not quite the same thing as parading the ashes in the public square to show we are fasting. People who use the ashes following this line of reasoning are careful to remove the ashes from their foreheads before they leave the church building.
As we have moved into the postmodernism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, we observe that another shift has occurred. There is growing trust and appreciation of ritual gesture and symbol in our culture. Baby boomers and baby busters who were raised in a world of television and technology are visually-oriented and sensually-oriented. Icons, such as the Nike swoosh, help many people of those generations make sense of the world. Ashes on the forehead, lots of water at baptism, bread that is really bread, anointing with oil for healing, and hands raised in praise are increasingly familiar and comfortable to the people in our congregations.
Ash Wednesday is a time to begin a rich journey. The Ash Wednesday Service is a frank recognition that we are mortal people who have sinned against God and our neighbor. See The United Methodist Book of Worship, page 321. As the introduction to the service says: "Ash Wednesday emphasizes a dual encounter: we confront our own mortality and confess our sin before God within the community of faith. The form and content of the service focus on the dual themes of sin and death in the light of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ."
As you plan for Lent and Ash Wednesday, be sure to read and reflect on the introductory resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 320-321. You might also want to publish parts of it in your church newsletter (giving credit to the Book of Worship, of course) to help prepare your congregation. BUT WATCH OUT! There is one place in this introductory material that contains a potentially hazardous error. On page 321, The United Methodist Book of Worship incorrectly suggests that "The ashes may be mixed with a small amount of water for the Imposition of Ashes." Do not do this. The mixture may form a caustic substance that will irritate or even burn the skin. Instead, use dry ashes (ground to a fine powder), or mix the ashes with a little olive oil or some other vegetable oil. Similarly, do not remove the ashes by trying to wash them off! Instead, rub them off with a towel (not moistened with water) followed by, as the text from Matthew's Gospel suggests, some olive oil or other vegetable oil to help remove the residue.
Ash Wednesday well-celebrated and thoughtfully linked to what will happen on the following Sundays leading to Easter will invite your congregation to become a disciple-making and disciple-renewing community on a forty-day journey — as described in the "Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline" (pages 322-323, The United Methodist Book of Worship).
Be sure your leadership team plans for settings for this spiritual journey to take place. See also chapter six in Come to the Waters: Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers and Making Disciples.