Receiving ashes: it's not just a Catholic thing

And it seems a lot of Protestants are embracing the penitential practices of the season, too:

Although receiving ashes on the forehead as a visible sign of penance has been a traditional Roman Catholic practice for centuries, many Protestant denominations have adopted the tradition, too.

“Lutherans receive ashes at Ash Wednesday services,” said the Rev. Cliff Eshbach, assistant to the bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

“Our Ash Wednesday services include reflecting privately on our sins, asking God for forgiveness and coming forward for the imposition of ashes. We also ask people to pray, fast and do acts of charity.”

Members of Pine Street Presbyterian Church and Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, both in Harrisburg, also will receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, their ministers said.

Nearly all Catholic churches will hold special Masses on March 9. During the Mass, priests will invite people to the altar to receive ashes.

Priests can intone the traditional reminder of human mortality by saying “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” or newer ones such as “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”

After Mass, Catholics head back to the world, usually with the ashes still prominent on their foreheads and a resolution to pray and do good deeds.

“Lent is a time to repent and believe in the good news,” said the Most Rev. Joseph P. McFadden, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg. “This year, I’d like to see Catholics give up their guilt about past failings, come to the sacrament of reconciliation and live in the newness of life in Jesus. There can be no renewal without reconciliation.”

The Rev. Russell Sullivan, pastor of Pine Street Presbyterian Church, tells his congregation to consider Lent “a time to reflect on God’s gift of salvation and our new life in Christ. It’s a time to look inwardly and think of our shortcomings and morality. It’s a time to be open to receive the gift of eternal life from God.”

Sullivan recommends taking a longer view of Lent by looking toward Easter.

“Lent prepares us for this gift that only God can give,” he said.

“We are offered bodily life again in God’s new creation.

“With Easter, the promise of resurrection inspires us to live in this world while creating a picture of what’s to come.”

Eshbach said Christians should embrace Lenten discipline, not be turned off by it.

“Change some of your practices,” he said. “Offer a bit more sacrifice. Do acts of charity to support people in your own communities and throughout the world. And be sure to pray. Reflect on your life of faith.”

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8 responses to “Receiving ashes: it's not just a Catholic thing”

  1. Ash Wednesday is a great opportunity for Christian churches to join in a service of common prayer (and, of course, repentence) without facing the problem of intercommunion. Our parish in Atlanta is located near the MLK historic site; we join with six nearby Protestant churches for an Ash Wednesday observance in the massive new sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ebenezer’s pastor provides information about Lenten customs so that everyone can understand the reception of ashes in the context of the liturgical year. The service encourages ecumenical cooperation on many different levels throughout the year, including joint outreach ministries.

  2. Nice idea. The only issue I see is that in Lent we are called to penitential practices and to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as needed. The non-Catholics would have no appreciation of that need.

  3. Actually, the booklet prepared by the Baptists for distribution at the service explains that Lent is a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for Easter. It seems that the Ash Wednesday observance can be a way for non-liturgical churches to recapture an important part of our common Christian heritage.

  4. In my former parish we celebrated vespers during advent and lent, and invited local protestant ministers to say a few words. The liturgy of the hours is certainly liturgy…

  5. Roman Catholics are not the only ones who celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation – Episcopalians and Anglicans have the opportunity to do so as well.

  6. Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the RCIA in my Latin Church will be burning our old palm fronds to make ashes. My happiest Mardi Gras in this parish was the year we had a priest who had the whole parish bring in palms and we were able to use ashes for Ash Wednesday which came exclusively from our own palm ashes, rather than being purchased. A nearby parish does this every year. 🙂

  7. I guess whatever gets people in Church is good. But I have never understood why people who never go to Church the whole year make long, long lines during Ash Wednesday and fill Churches to the brim.

  8. Non-Catholics may be for repentance alright, but would not advocate penance.

    Although I heard a radio pastor insist that “remorse” (a synonym for repentance) is insufficient; tears alone are inadequate. One needs to “produce good fruit as evidence of […] repentance.” (Matt. 3:8)

    I guess that “good fruit” would be restitution of some kind or maybe a penance.

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