It’s a conversation that happens in one form or another every year. This year, it happened with my daughter, home from track practice, “We (she and the other throwers) had a religious conversation today.”
“Yeah, somebody had to leave early to get their ashes.”
“Somebody wanted to know why Presbyterians don’t get ashes.”
What did you say?
“I said that we try to keep things simple.”
That’s not a bad answer at all.
For the record, since the 1970’s, many Presbyterians have practiced the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. For them—as well as our Catholic brothers and sisters and many like-minded Protestants—the ritual has great meaning as they enter the season of Lent. At its best, it signifies our fragile mortality and the need of the repentance of sins. I fault no one for its practice.
However, I do not practice it.
You see, as a Reformed Christian, a certain nervousness about ritual comes naturally to me. At its worst, I fear that the imposition of ashes lends itself to an attitude of self-sufficiency. Along with many of the practices we attempt during the season of Lent, I’ve seen the imposition of ashes become an end to itself rather than a means to an end. “I’m getting myself ready for Easter,” someone will say, and I hear, “If I am good enough, if I repent enough, if I do enough of this Lenten stuff before Easter, I’ll deserve it. I’ll have earned it.”
Too many of us are trying too hard to fix ourselves, when the whole point of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is that we can’t fix ourselves. Only Christ can do the fixing.
Years ago, I heard a rather brilliant sermon preached during Lent. It was 1999, and the preacher had just seen the movie American Beauty. She recounted the scene in which Carolyn Burnham comes home to find her recently unemployed husband Lester lounging and drinking beer on their very expensive couch.
“It’s just stuff,” Lester announces.
“This is a $4,000 sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch.”
“It’s just a couch,” he shouts back.
And the preacher then dared to wonder out loud just how much of the “stuff” we do during Lent is just “stuff” that ultimately replaces Jesus.
I’ve wondered the same thing ever since, and I’m not alone. Reformers have been wondering about Lent for centuries. If we’re offering our lives to Christ every day, going to God in prayer every day, repenting of our sins every day, and seeking to glorify Him in our words and actions every day, is Lent necessary? Helpful, perhaps, but necessary?
Consider Heinrich Bullinger, writing in the Second Helvetic Confession, of 1561:
“The fast of Lent is attested by antiquity but not at all in the writings of the apostles. Therefore it ought not, and cannot, be imposed on the faithful.” (Ch. 24)
Too many rituals replace the God whom they are intended to honor.
Hence, I observe Lent lightly in the churches I serve. I commend additional devotional reading. I encourage us to gather with other Christians for worship on Friday evenings in our community. I suggest fasting, if it seems needful, as I would any other time of year. We mark Holy Week with mid week services and a prayer vigil.
Perhaps most meaningfully for me, on the Sunday before the season begins, we take time to renew our baptismal vows. I know that even this renewal of baptism is somewhat controversial in some Presbyterian quarters, but it seems appropriate since baptism is what Jesus did before he entered his 40 days in the wilderness.
It’s simple, and, as my daughter so aptly put it, “We like to keep things simple.”