Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the day in the Christian calendar that marks the starting point of the 40 days of Lent (don’t count Sundays) that lead up to Easter. This is a day that often confused me when I was growing up and the one day of the year that I wished my family were members of the Roman Catholic Church. Let me explain a little about that last statement before I talk more about rituals.
In the small community in which I grew up, my family were members of the Presbyterian Church. At that time, many Presbyterians did not lift up Lent and/or Ash Wednesday very much. We did not attend worship on Ash Wednesday. However, my classmates who were members of the Roman Catholic Church definitely did attend Mass on that day. Mass was held during the school day and since the church was only a block away from the school, they would leave school, attend Mass, and then come back to school with something black smeared on their foreheads. I never could figure out why there was something black smeared on their foreheads but no one wanted to look stupid so no one ever asked. I was very jealous that they were able to leave school, even if it was to attend a church service. So I was confused about this Holy Day that they called Ash Wednesday and on which they had something smeared on their forehead. But I was also jealous.
Until I became an adult, that was my understanding of Ash Wednesday and the rituals in connection with the day. After I graduated high school and attended a Roman Catholic college for my freshman year, I gained a much deeper understanding of Ash Wednesday. I now know that the black that is smeared on people’s foreheads on this day is ash produced by the burning of palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. I know that the purpose of this is to remind us of our mortality and sinfulness which Jesus would overcome in his death on a cross and his resurrection. I know that Lent is a time for reflection on our need of Christ and to evaluate and strengthen our spiritual disciplines to enrich our relationship with God. I know that as part of that reflection and strengthening of spiritual disciplines, some individuals choose to “give up” something for the period of Lent to increase their focus on the Lord. I know all of these things but I still am haunted by the question. . . “WHY?”
In my years as a believer, I have experienced and learned many rituals in the Church. I am capable of doing “High Church” as well as any other believer. The issue that I have grown to have is that if a ritual is nothing more than that, why do we continue to do it. This is not to question the value of any specific ritual. Instead, I am questioning if the ritual has meaning for the individuals who are participating in it. If the ritual does indeed have meaning, then continue to do it. However, I would argue that if the ritual does not have meaning to the individual, a person has two options to consider. The first option is to spend time researching and understanding the background and original purpose of the ritual. If after doing the research the individual finds a new connection to the meaning and it benefits their connection with the Lord, then continue to do so. The second option is to discontinue participating in the ritual. In either case, it is the responsibility of the individual to seek out meaning in what they are doing.
So as I, along with many others, observe tonight the rituals associated with Ash Wednesday, I encourage all of you to go beyond the rituals and find meaning. It is in meaning that we can strengthen our relationship with the Lord.