Understanding Ash Wednesday: From the Protestant Reformation to Mardi Gras

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.

This could be Calvary Temple, the church I attended when visiting my grandmother. It now houses the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, CT.

 

In among the many digressions, I learned a few things.

First, there are a lot of misconceptions about Ash Wednesday.

Thanks to GotQuestions.org for the image
Take this popular image from GotQuestions.org as an example. The caption has a common misperception in it. (After two days of Lenten digressions, I’m now an expert!) Lent does not actually end on Easter Sunday. It ends on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. This makes a difference if you are fasting.

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.

From Wikipedia:
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day of prayer, fasting, and repentance. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and falls on the first day of Lent, the six weeks of penitence before Easter. 

 

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.

No matter what I read, (My list of sources is at the end of this post.) all agree that Ash Wednesday opens the season known as Lent, which is “the season of fasting, prayer, self-examination, and repentance.” I’d never made the connection between Ash Wednesday and Lent before. I had some learning to do.

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.

Fasting, self-examination, reflection, took me down another hour-long rabbit hole. Fasting diets, self-help groups that encourage reflection, and meditation retreats are ubiquitous. My sons and many of my new Vermont friends are now into these annual “cleanses” which involve fasts of a sort.
The idea of turning inward has become a year-round quest. I have nothing against any of this, of course. I’m a big fan of self-knowledge, introspection. But surely, I thought, there must be something more to Lent than what seemed more of a rehash of failed New Year’s Eve resolutions.

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.

Fasting is at the core of Islam‘s month-long Ramadan, which I wrote about in 2016 on June 8,  My Ramadan, here. Yes, I decided I’d try to fast the way my colleague Gulzhan did.  You can read how it went in my post the following week, My Ramadan Fast Follow-Up, here.
Buddhists have an ongoing fast, in my opinion, in that they tend to eat only in the morning, a discipline intended to advance self-control and self-discipline. I have not written about that. I just find it interesting. Not all Buddhists follow this practice, by the way.
Hindus fast weekly as a way to achieve harmony with “the Absolute” and maintain good health. I’ve not written about this one either.

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.

One thing is clear, amid the various theological tenets at their core, the world’s major religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism — hold a place for fasting (defined in various degrees of discomfort) for penance and/or reflection.

Except the one I was brought up in.

With a bit more reading, I learned it was the “reformed” churches:  those springing from Calvinist origins, and who stressed the predestination* of believers, as all of mine did — from the tiny Bible Presbyterian Church in East Orange, NJ where my parents were married and I was baptized as an infant to Brookdale Baptist in Bloomfield (a Conservative Baptist church, they’d proudly tell you) where I was baptized again fourteen years later.

*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.

I spent a bit of time reading up on the Protestant Reformation, that period in the mid-16th century when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and realized there’s been quite a bit of evolution in belief over these past 500 years.
Still, the Calvinists and their ilk (what we lump together these days as evangelicals and fundamentalists) kept popping up. Specifically their steadfastness in the the “once saved, always saved” tenet. Once you are saved, whether through free will or a predetermined all-knowing God, there is no need for acts of further repentance. No need to seek absolution. Salvation is achieved, hallelujah.
This reminded me why I had left the church so easily once I began to question. Those individuals who so smugly claim we, “the chosen, the saved” are perfect in God’s eyes scare me. It’s the arrogance of that absoluteness that still twists something deep in my gut.
But it answered my final question about Ash Wednesday. Such a position leaves no room for ongoing repentance; no acts of contrition are needed; there is simply no need for an Ash Wednesday or a Lent.

 

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.

What about you? What is your relationship to fasting? to sacrifice? and Do you have a “giving up for Lent” practice? How do you engage in self-reflection? Any plans for Lent this year? And most important, what have I missed?  

 

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 

31 Responses

  1. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    A church of England girl born and bred…High Church, of course, we always gave something up for lent…What I am giving up this year was a puzzle as I have given up so much lately so I will give up cursing( not) that I cuss a lot but it is something. My abiding memory during lent was sitting and making the palm crosses in preparation for Palm Sunday which follows lent…
    Carol Taylor recently posted…Smorgasbord Health Column with Sally Cronin and Carol Taylor – Cook from Scratch to prevent nutritional deficiencyMy Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Well, you educated yourself and me with this post. Of all the ideas you present to me about Lent, the one that appeals most is self-reflection and reconciliation. Fasting, not so much, although it is good for the body and spirit. I do like to “fast” from sugar, which makes me wonder about your own experiment with a sugar-free diet. An update soon perhaps?

    It’s time to meditate, Janet, and so I’ll go: To answer your question, no, I don’t think you missed a thing!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Walking Crooked, Writing StraightMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You make me smile, Marian. And remember an early soc prof I had at NYU. He taught social change at a time of great upheaval in our country (late 60’s, early 70’s). And he held a gathering at his home one night on the topic “what are we willing to do?” — get arrested, boycott, protest, march, write a letter, fast, etc. I stopped by his office to tell him I couldn’t attend (one of my nagging little regrets) but wanted the record to show “I won’t fast.” Back then the idea of that seemed totally bizarre and foreign to me. Not so much anymore. I was so quick to proclaim. Hmmmm.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Ash Wednesday: From the Protestant Reformation to Mardi GrasMy Profile

  3. Merril D Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet. I don’t have any personal experience with Lent, and I don’t fast. As you know, there are Jewish holidays that include fasting, but I am not religious, and my immediate family never practiced any rituals. I do give up leavened food for Passover, but that is my own personal honoring of all the Jews over the centuries who were killed or not able to have a Seder.

    A historical note–Puritans, the New England Congregationalists, did fast–quite often. Thanksgiving days were prayer days, and fasts were held because they did believe they were sinners. They were held, for instance, after Native American attacks. Each church was made up of the “saved,” but even so, one could never be sure. They did not have holiday observances on Christmas, Easter, etc. So there is both an absolute–with no room for dissension–and a tension in what the church was and who was saved.
    Merril D Smith recently posted…March Madness: HaibunMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I never fail to learn when I read your posts. Today is no exception.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Crime Doesn’t PayMy Profile

  5. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    Thank you for this informative look into Ash Wednesday. As a lapsed Presby who went to college in Lutheran and RC universities then found herself plunked among Episcopalian relatives, I’ve experienced Ash Wednesday in a myriad of ways. You can imagine.

    Some years I’ve given up things, either tangible like food or intangible like Twitter. Other years, I’ve tried to add things to my life like scripture or inspirational daily thoughts. I’ve had the ashes on my forehead, but usually not.

    As for the ending of the 40 days of Lent I knew this detail because in our small town Presbyterian church we celebrated Maundy Thursday with a huge supper at church. It was fun.
    Ally Bean recently posted…In Which I Prattle On About Ivy, Donating Furniture To Charity, And TuesdayMy Profile

  6. Gary Grimes
    | Reply

    As you and I have been discovering over the past few years, my upbringing was so similar to yours, Janet. I was born into a family of upstanding Methodists, and was baptized as an infant. At the age of 10 or 11 my parents decided we needed a more “sincere” form of worship. So we started attending services at an independent, fundamentalist, Baptist church. I got “saved” and was re-baptized (so it would count). I remember the constant warnings to avoid anything that appeared to be “too Catholic”.

    As an adult I’ve moved far away from that fundamentalist/evangelical approach, and have come to find my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. Here I’ve learned a lot about all of the seasons of the Church year. I love this quieter, introspective season of Lent.

    Here are a couple of other little bits of Lenten trivia…
    Lent is meant to represent the 40 days that Christ fasted in the desert being tempted by the Devil.
    There are 40 days of Lent, but there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. That’s because Sundays are always seen as celebrations of Christ’s Resurrection. So those 6 Sundays are technically not a part of Lent. Some folks (me included) use those Sundays to take a break (cheat) from their Lenten fast.
    While the season of Lent does end on Holy Thursday, the Lenten fast continues to Holy Saturday.
    In our Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday, the first portion of the service usually takes place in darkness as stories from the Old Testament are read. Those stories are followed by the Renewal of Baptismal Vows. Lent officially comes to an end as the Paschal Candle is lit, and the priest says the words, “Alleluia. Christ is risen”. The people respond, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia”.

    One more funny story…
    In our tradition, the word “Alleluia” is avoided throughout the season of Lent, even on Sundays. So our priest played a game a couple of years ago with the kids of the church. At the shrove Tuesday Pancake supper he handed out little strips of paper with the word, “Alleluia” printed on it to all of the kids. They were instructed to hide them anywhere in the church. One of those little cherubs decided to wad up one of those Alleluias and toss it up into the pipes of the organ. Not long after that I started experiencing problems with one pipe of the organ that was sounding way off pitch. It was so bad that I avoided using the entire stop. The Alleluia wad had dropped into the mouth of that pipe preventing the proper airflow causing it to sound more like a wheeze than a whistle… We didn’t know what was causing the problem until the organ tuner came to tune several months later. Since then, the priest now takes all of those Alleluias with the kids and buries them in the church yard.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Great story, Gary. I imagine you and your priest proclaiming a few extra Alleluias when the errant wad was uncovered. Did you know you are the second person I’ve met recently who grew up evangelical and has now found a home (as you so sweetly put it) in the Episcopal world. Next time you come over, I must get you together so I can understand why. Or not. What I’m working on lately is that compulsion to “know why” all the time. As though sitting in the unknown is such a terrible place. It’s nice to have you here. Thank you for what you’ve added.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Ash Wednesday: From the Protestant Reformation to Mardi GrasMy Profile

  7. Tracy Rittmueller
    | Reply

    Wow — today is all about the beginning of Lent for me, and so much is happening in my heart, that place which is the precious essence of a person, that it is beyond words. But Lent is an incredibly important journey yearly, and as with the labyrinthine journey of life, while the seasons come around again, each unfolding may have similar themes, but is unique. I couldn’t help but respond to this post — thank you for the history lesson!

    The Lenten journey for me is a season of awareness of the fragility and importance of life, and while it begins in ashes (death and dying) and involves letting go of ego in order to fall deeper into love, we are aware that we are journeying toward renewal–transformation.

    I have a dear friend who is a pastor as well as an oblate at my monastery, whose son is an astrophysicist. She brings to Lent the scientific conviction that we do not “return to dust” but to “stardust.” She challenged me this year with these words: let us begin to reflect what it means to be reduced to stardust which is smaller than clay, smaller than dust but larger than life.

    Being reduced, made small, is about letting go of control, I think, not out of debasement, but out of a conviction that we are a precious part of something so much bigger, more loving, and more beautiful than ourselves — without forgetting that we are precious. There is tension involved in holding those two opposites — we are the dust of stars. (My friend mixes a tiny bit of superfine glitter into her ashes!)

    You know my story, and the sadness I carry with me. Yesterday, after weeks of meditation, after hearing to my heart saying that life is precious and beautiful, I decided I am not “fasting” from food or drink, but instead I am working to “abstain” from an entrenched feeling of loss, which has been closing me off to new life. I will do this by reminding myself each morning, “My heart is ready to accept that life this day is precious and beautiful.” And I am treating my body with reverence, because I am made of stardust!

    The story of Lent is the understanding that there is a journey involved — saying those words My Heart is Ready!does not make the future–the transformed me–present; believing them is a commitment to the journey, I promise to go through the wilderness, through fear and darkness, with hope, to stay the course.
    Tracy Rittmueller recently posted…How 3 months at a Benedictine monastery set me free from the time-pressure paradoxMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Beautiful, as always Tracy. This jumped out at me: “And I am treating my body with reverence, because I am made of stardust!” What a lovely sentiment. I also love how those who observe this season can create of it what they need. So many variations. Your choice to abstain from something other than food or drink sends a powerful message, I believe, that each of us, at our core, is responsible for our reality. I wish you well, of course, in your journey. And thank you so much for adding your voice here today.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Ash Wednesday: From the Protestant Reformation to Mardi GrasMy Profile

  8. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story, Janet. For me, Lent is a time for self-reflection and meditation… Reading through the four Gospels beginning with Mark during Lent, helps me prepare and be thankful for Easter–the Greatest Celebration of all! Wishing everyone around the globe a blessed and beautiful season! <3

  9. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, you are as tenacious as a pit bull going after a bone when it comes to researching and learning about a topic! I always appreciate the thoroughness and care you take with exploring a topic. What I love most about Lent is the call to pause, reflect and renew in spirit. Of course, I grew up fasting and giving up things I enjoy. Now I try to reflect on ways I can be a better person and give back. Your very Catholic friend😊

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy. I resonated with your comment, “Of course, I grew up fasting and giving up things I enjoy.” How interesting; I certainly did not. So, I’m wondering if having that background makes fasting and letting go in the present any easier. Wouldn’t that be nice, if it did?
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Ash Wednesday: From the Protestant Reformation to Mardi GrasMy Profile

      • Kathleen Pooler
        | Reply

        Oh, I think it does, Janet. And that’s an interesting question. I believe the ritual established a foundation for me, one which I can modify to meet my adult needs.

  10. Joe
    | Reply

    Janet,
    As I grew up, Lent was always a time to give something up. This could be candy, cursing or talking back to your parents. In my house, and many others, things were given up Monday through Saturday. We were allowed to partake in whatever you gave up on sundays. Interestingly, many other homes gave things up for the entire Lenten season. Thank god our tradition took Sunday off!

    With my children, there has been a significant change in how we discuss Lent. We focus less on giving things up And more on doing things for others. This reminds me of when Patrick was first learning about Lent. He was told that instead of giving something up, he could do something positive. So he decided to play more basketball that year!!!!!!

    Thanks for an interesting read.
    Joe

  11. Silvia
    | Reply

    In Italy Ash Wednesday define the ends of “Carnevale” (a period of life celebration with rich food and dressing up parades and parties, similar to the Brazilian one), the day after “martedì grasso”, which I believe have something to do with “Mardi grass”. As a catholic child I always gave up some thing for Lent as stop watching tv, or stop eating sweets. I can remember as a child on the lent fridays we would skip the meat and eat only sea food based dishes. These are my Italian religious memories as a child of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

  12. susan scott
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet – I now know a little more about Lent’s 40 days leading up to Easter. I like that various faiths have activities or practices that highlight particular phases; it makes it more real instead of just intellectual or theoretical. I saw an appeal on FB for the 40 days of Lent and giving up something – on a daily basis for the 40 days – so I’m doing this and putting aside an item everyday into a bag which I will donate at the end of 40 days. If I run out of clothes, I guess I can add other basics, like tea coffee etc.

  13. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Good stuff, Janet. I particularly thought it thought provoking, the notion that evangelical protestants need no ongoing repentance, given that they are already “saved.” I hadn’t fully considered this, in contrast to other beliefs, but it potentially explains a good deal.

    As for me, I was once, but am no longer, a religious person, and don’t engage in any formal practices akin to honoring Lent. But I do belief strongly in self reflection, and respect certain aspects of this tradition.

    Anyway, I hope you’re well. I’m off tomorrow to somewhere tropical. FYI, I did attempt to “like” this post several times, but wasn’t able to. Perhaps there are some ongoing issues with the site, or perhaps the problem is on my end? (I also haven’t been getting follow up comments by e-mail, despite checking the little box, which is a relatively recent problem).

  14. Amelia
    | Reply

    I grew up Anglican and we celebrated Ash Wednesday. Our church services except for shaking hands is pretty close to a Catholic service. I know Bahai and they are finishing off their fasting period before their new year.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I used to understand Ba’hai. I realize Ive forgotten much. I’d love to understand more of the Anglican- Episcopal relationship. Is it just semantics or are there doctrinal distinctions to be found? Thanks for stopping.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Looking Back 50 Years: Why Do We Forget So Easily?My Profile

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