I set out wanting to better understand a holiday that is celebrated in my own backyard, yet is one I know very little about: Ash Wednesday
In the process I found myself thinking once again about the the churches I attended as a child and the neighborhoods I once lived in. I spent a few hours finding photos (and not finding photos) of those places.
In among the many digressions, I learned a few things.
First, there are a lot of misconceptions about Ash Wednesday.
I assumed Ash Wednesday was a distinctly Catholic holiday. It’s not.
I grew up in a series of evangelical, fundamentalist churches and spent much of my summers with my cousins, three hours away, who were Catholic, as was their mother. Their father, my grandmother’s younger brother, went to the local Methodist Church but never struck me as a particularly religious man. Certainly he never showed the fervor and zealotry that I saw in my grandmother and her mother, who attended Calvary Temple.
It didn’t take long before I noticed that my cousins and my aunt did things differently. I’d ride with them to something called “confession” on Friday nights, but have to stay in the car. We ate fish on Fridays when at their house, even though, my grandmother was quick to tell me, they didn’t have to any longer; something about a former pope. They had a ritual way of moving their hands over their bodies after we’d all say grace. And they got a smudge of black ash on their foreheads every spring.
I never questioned, never asked. They were all things that, I was told, “Catholics did,” whatever that meant. End of inquiry. In our extended family, questions about differences weren’t welcome.
In hindsight, I realize that my great-grandmother (also the mother of my cousins’ father) may have been the initial reason. She lived with them from just before I turned 7 until she died, when I was 13. And she carried her
displeasure dismay disappointment at this interfaith marriage to her grave. So, the topic was simply off limits. Then, I imagine, after her death, the habit of staying silent just stuck. As I look back, no one asked difficult questions, ever. And so none of us learned how.
I’ve spent most of my adult life making up for lost time, a practice that served me well in graduate school. And is a crucial part of how this blog has evolved.
These days I generally begin with the Misters or Mistresses Google and Wikipedia and such was the case when I set out to educate myself about Ash Wednesday.
This was clear enough, except it didn’t tell me why the ashes and it left me wondering about “Shrove Tuesday,” which I had never heard of.
Google’s Dictionary at least mentioned the ashes.
The marked foreheads have always, to me, served as a kind of pedestrian bumper sticker: a sign to the world of where you stand, what you believe, who you are. I didn’t know just where they were standing or what they believed, but I envied those who wore the ashes in such visible display for I too wanted to feel a part of something bigger, to join in their striving toward something better. But, I was reminded, I was not Catholic.
The ashes, I’d come to learn, serve as a reminder of the “dust to dust” idea and harken back to the days of “sackcloth and ashes.” They are meant to be taken as a visible reminder of poverty, humility, and our mortality.
Still, I wondered about Shrove Tuesday.
So off I went into Mardi Gras, held on the day before Ash Wednesday (aka Shrove Tuesday), and generally observed by lots of pigging out, indulging, and revelling. I’ve never been a big fan of Mardi Gras as it reminds me of Halloween and, in fact, for many years that’s when I thought Mardi Gras fell. Yup, lots of misinformation in my growing up years.
So I looked more closely at the six-week period known as Lent.
First, the word LENT: it’s from the Old English and basically just means spring. So, Lent is a springtime holiday.
Sometimes cultural differences have a common core.
I couldn’t help but think of Nowruz, celebrated on March 8 each year by Muslims around the world as their “new year” and with much the same focus, minus the ashes on the forehead. Back in 2016, I wrote here about observing Nowruz when I lived in Kazakhstan. Fasting is not a part of Nowruz, but reconciliation and self-reflection are.
Among the Protestants who celebrate Ash Wednesday (and Lent) are the Anglicans and Episcopalians (no surprise there), Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. This is not to say that every church observes these holy days. If Protestants differ from Catholics in any one thing, it’s in their eagerness to interpret the Bible themselves. Protestants have no pope and, while each church is loosely concentrated within their own cooperative structure, each is still free to worship as the congregants choose. That gives a lot of leeway.
Except the one I was brought up in.
*Predestination: a doctrine in Christian theology; the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others.
And so this year, as I see people with the ash-fed cross on their forehead, I will admit to a certain admiration. And gratitude. They are striving to be better, to forgive, to reflect, just as I try to do daily. And don’t we all benefit by having such people in our world?
We are all, after all, each of us, a work in progress.
Here’s the list of my various sources.
WordPress’ “Learn More” window, which I’ve used often to hide lists like this, is balky today. So, here is a list of the sources I found particularly helpful.
From the United Methodist Church, UMC.com, no date given, Why Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
From PeterRollins.com, no date given, Atheism for Lent
From Forums.Catholic.com, 2006, What Protestant Denominations Observe Ash Wednesday and Lent?
From the BBC, 2009, Lent
From the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 2011, Baptists Observe Ash Wednesday
From The Washington Post, 2014, The 25 most popular things to give up for Lent
From The Daily Beast, 2017, The Greatest Myths About Lent
From Thoughtco.com, 2019, Religious Fasting in Hinduism
From History.com, 2019, The Reformation