I grew up in a Baptist church. Some of my earliest memories come from my time in a local Baptist church in central Ohio. Like the time my little brother spit a half-masticated donut on the floor of the fellowship hall. Or the time my sister had her finger severed by a folding chair during nursery. Or the time my father interrupted his sermon to reprimand my sister and I for creating a leaning tower of hymnals on the uncomfortable wooden pews. With all these memories and more, why is it that my earliest memory of an Ash Wednesday service was in my mid-twenties at a Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky? What’s the deal with Ash Wednesday anyways?
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the Lenten season, marking the 40 days leading up to Easter, the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. For centuries many Protestant Christians have rejected Lent observance, reminding one another of Paul’s words in passages like Colossians 2:16—“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”—and Romans 14:5–“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”.
These verses remind the Christian that “holy days” aren’t really any holier than any other day. In other words, every day should be lived to the glory of Christ, whether it’s Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, or President’s Day (1 Cor 10:31). But that truth hasn’t stopped Christians (including most Baptists) from recognizing special days like Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and heavy hitters like Easter and Christmas. Why do we recognize some days and not others?
First, we should admit we’re not commanded to recognize any special days except for the Lord’s Day. In other words, theonlyspecial day that Christians are commanded to recognize is the week-in and week-out gathering with God’s people on Sundays for worship. That’s it. Everything else merely supplements that. So from the outset, we should avoid any “special day” observances that hinder or minimize the importance of “the main event.” We should major on the main things, and that means investing the bulk of our energies and efforts in doing what Christ has commanded. So we should spend most of our time praying, planning, and preparing to do Sunday gatherings with Christ-glorifying sant-equipping excellence.
Second, we should establish other events, programs, and special days with caution. We should ask ourselves,is it forbidden? If so, we should not do it. Let’s think through some examples. What about an Easter Sunday service to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus? Not forbidden. A Christmas Eve service to remember the birth of Christ?Not forbidden.A Good Friday service to remember the crucifixion? Not forbidden. The same would go for anAsh Wednesday service. There is nothing in Scripture that would forbid any church from having one or more (or none!) of these special services.
But Christian wisdom would require us to do more than merely avoid forbidden things. There’s a second question we should ask ourselves before we include any events, programs, and special days in our church calendars. We should ask ourselves,is it edifying? 1 Corinthians 14:26 reminds us that everything we do in the church should be done for the purpose of building up the entire body. If it isn’t edifying, we shouldn’t do it.
So what about Ash Wednesday? Can an Ash Wednesday service edify the body? I would argue yes. The first Ash Wednesday service I attended was a special service designed to emphasize our fragility and our sin. The pastor preached a powerful sermon highlighting our sinfulness and need for the Gospel, something the Spirit used in my heart to help me feel the weightiness of the cross and the beauty of the resurrection.
Of course local churches don’t need an Ash Wednesday service to remind their people of the sinfulness of sin and the fragility of man. But if the congregation is willing and able to host such a service, I believe it can be used of God in mighty ways.
Some might object that Ash Wednesday observance should be avoided due to its frequent connection to the Roman Catholic Church. But we ought to be careful to allow Scripture and wisdom to be our guides, rather than merely not appearing “Catholic.” After all, our Catholic neighbors observe Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday. Should we avoid those days too? Should we abandoned our support for the Pro-Life Movement? After all, the Catholic Church courageously fought for the unborn long before many Protestants did (including our own Southern Baptist Convention). The point is not to minimize the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism (see our recent Sola sermon series if you’re not convinced). Instead, we just want to remind one another that we should not reject everything simply because it is occasionally connected with Roman Catholic traditions. Besides, Roman Catholics are not the only ones with a long tradition of Ash Wednesday observance.
So Lord willing, we’ll host our second Ash Wednesday service on February 14 at 6:30 PM at Poquoson Baptist Church. The service will look much like a normal Sunday morning worship gathering. We’ll sing together, pray together, and listen to the Word of God preached. But with God’s help we’ll emphasize our sinfulness and remind ourselves that dust we are, and to dust we will return. Then our service will conclude, not with ashes on our foreheads, but with a communion celebration of the body and blood of Christ that transforms our ashy hearts and makes us new.
I hope to see you then!