By Matthew McEwen
“Would you like to help with the Ash Wednesday service?”
Having grown up Free Methodist, and never having experienced an Ash Wednesday service, this question from my supervisor intrigued me. As part of my seminary studies, I had a placement in the spiritual care department at a major hospital in Toronto, Ontario. I knew that this invitation to participate in that Ash Wednesday service was going to be another unique and memorable learning experience.
The contrast was stunning. Surrounded by the best of medical equipment and leading experts in health care, a tender service took place to remind people of their mortality.
“Dust you are, and dust you will be.” The setting of a hospital was a powerful context for a service offering the reminder that life is momentary.
“Living well is the result of a heart of wisdom that knows life is short and days are numbered.”
Holy Living and Dying
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Historically, the church taught something called ars moriendi — the art of dying. John Wesley was familiar with that tradition, and as part of his library for Methodists minsters, he included Jeremy Taylor’s “The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying.” In a sermon, “On the Resurrection of the Dead,” Wesley writes:
“Let this especially, fortify us against the fear of death: It is now disarmed, and can do us no hurt. It divides us, indeed, from this body awhile; but it is only that we may receive it again more glorious. As God, therefore, said once to Jacob, ‘Fear not to go down into Egypt, for I will go down with thee, and will surely bring thee up again;’ so may I say to all who are born of God, ‘Fear not to go down into the grave; lay down your heads in the dust; for God will certainly bring you up again, and that in a much more glorious manner.’ Only ‘be ye steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord;’ and then let death prevail over, and pull down, this house of clay; since God hath undertaken to rear it up again, infinitely more beautiful, strong, and useful.”
In this reflection on death, there is both the encouragement that comes from hope and the call to live well by being “steadfast and unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Living well is the result of a heart of wisdom that knows life is short and days are numbered. Psalm 90:12 is a key text for understanding the role of an Ash Wednesday service.
“The teacher in Ecclesiastes uses the term hevel to remind us that life is temporary. “
Life Is Short; Live Well
The book of Ecclesiastes is another biblical foundation for Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the annual reminder that life is momentary, and this is also the major theme in Ecclesiastes. Found throughout that book of the Bible one encounters the Hebrew term hevel. “Hevel, Hevel, everything is hevel” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). When it comes to translating that word, there are a range of options. The NIV chooses to use the word “meaningless,” but that seems to be a contradictory statement to the rest of the Bible. The teacher in Ecclesiastes uses the term hevel to remind us that life is temporary. This is supported by the poem to time in Ecclesiastes 3, which says there is a time for everything, including a time to be born and a time to die.
By the time one reaches the end of Ecclesiastes, there is a final note that all of life has meaning since all of life will come under judgment. Ecclesiastes, like Psalm 90:12, is a call to remember that life is short. Since there will indeed be a coming day of judgment, one should fear God, gain a heart of wisdom, and live well.
“Alongside the call to remembering our mortality and the invitation to living well, there is also the call to repentance.”
Called to Repentance
This leads to the second element of an Ash Wednesday service. Alongside the call to remembering our mortality and the invitation to living well, there is also the call to repentance. In receiving the ash, the minister might say something like, “Repent and believe the gospel.”
As I began ministry and thought about offering an Ash Wednesday service, I did some research on this tradition and practice. One of the resources I found contains Wesleyan perspectives on the church year. According to Stuart Malloy’s “Reflections on Ash Wednesday,” the practice can be traced back to the early church where the ash was initially used as a way of reconciling with those who were “backsliders” and were penitent. Eventually the imposition of ash was offered to the entire church:
“We who will bear the ashes upon our foreheads stand with those whose sins may be more public, but not, according to the Scriptures, more grievous to the heart of God. And so we make our confessions. … If you only knew the secrets of my heart, if you only knew the sins that I am capable of contemplating, if you only knew some of the schemes I have considered — and of course God does know — then you would know that I, too, am a sinner.
“Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).”
Traditional and Scriptural
When I introduced Ash Wednesday to my congregation, I referred to the biblical and historical foundation for it. With the objection that this is a “Catholic” practice, the answer comes from this early church tradition.
Add in the Scripture that calls us to number our days, along with the gospel call to repentance and live well, Ash Wednesday makes sense.
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