Lent and Protestants

In the church of my childhood no attention was paid to either Advent or Lent. The words themselves sounded slightly mystical, indicative of strange beliefs and practices of Roman Catholic Friends who didn’t eat meat on Friday, went to confession, crossed themselves at the free throw line and, of all things, showed up at school one February or March morning with a smudge of dirt on their foreheads. I’m not the only one, I suspect, who tried to be helpful by pointing out to a friend that there was dirt on his forehead, only to be told that he knew it was there, that it wasn’t dirt but ashes, and that a priest put it there. I didn’t know.

It was so esoteric, so unlike the straight forward simplicity of my Presbyterian tradition and my church where the first appearance of candles in worship precipitated an argument between those who loved candles and those who thought candles were catholic. Lent, as Ted Smith remembers in his thoughtful article, An Unsustainable Lent, in this issue, was not much more that the One Great Hour of Sharing cardboard church banks that were distributed at Sunday School, taken home to receive our mealtime pennies and nickels to help poor children somewhere else in the world. Those same Catholic friends also announced that they had to give something up for Lent which my parents assured me was entirely unnecessary and too “catholic” for our sensibilities. My juvenile chums and I had great fun trivializing the whole business by announcing that we were giving up watermelon or spinach or Brussel sprouts for Lent. We thought it was quite hilarious.

Many of us have come full circle. I have. Thanks to the Liturgical Renewal Movement which introduced Protestants to the meaning and beauty of the Liturgical Year observances, I began to appreciate the rhythm of the liturgical seasons and now cannot imagine my religion without them.

At a staff meeting early in my time in Chicago we discussed the possibility of introducing the imposition of ashes during an Ash Wednesday worship service. We discussed the theology of it and our assumptions that many of our people would be leery of it if not outrightly hostile. During the discussion I kept hearing the voice of my Presbyterian Grandmother who was convinced that there was a Vatican plot to take over the world starting with naive and unsuspecting Protestants. We should be ever vigilant about “creeping Romanism”. I was sure she would be very unhappy about what her grandson was about to do.

When the staff conversation moved from theology and how best to explain it to the congregation to logistics it became clear that no one had the slightest notion of how exactly to do it. We weren’t sure where the ashes came from. So, we called our friends and neighbors at Holy Name Cathedral who couldn’t have been more helpful. The patiently explained that left over Palms from the prior year Palm Sunday celebration were burned, the ashes gathered and stored and mixed with a little oil (it helps the ashes adhere to the forehead but be careful not use too much oil which results in a runny mess), and brought out for use on Ash Wednesday. Then came a kind offer. “Would we like to use some of Holy Name’s ashes?” Of course, that is what we did and Grandma’s warnings became more urgent in my mind, but so did the sense that we were recovering an old and meaningful ritual and symbol, and we were also joining in a public witness of the ecumenical church.

It all went well. Not everyone came forward for the imposition of ashes the first year, but enough did to prevent embarrassment. And now it is done at several Ash Wednesday services and Presbyterian ministers have learned how to burn palms, save the ashes and mix with the right proportion of oil. Church members attend but so do many non-members and I am always deeply moved to witness the ritual. Here we are, in the midst of a big bustling American city, surrounded by high-end hotels, department stores and boutiques, and from the doors of the church on the corner come people with ashes on their foreheads. In business and power suits, stylish coats and heels but also the disheveled homeless: all of us with a stark reminder of our mortality on our foreheads.

I wouldn’t miss it. Every year it is startling to be looked in the eye usually by a much younger clergy person and told, “John: Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
I’m not sure how in the world you could celebrate Easter without that simple but eloquent reminder of our humanity and our mortality.

So we will go to church on Ash Wednesday again, and I will be reminded of words I , and every minister, have read at the most vulnerable, yet powerful and unnforgetable moments in the life of any of us – at graveside,

Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust,
In the sure and certain hope
of the Resurrection to eternal life.


  1. I’ve been Googling around, looking for arguments for/against Protestant engagement in Lenten services and/or the giving up of things for Lent. I grew up in Presbyterian church that had Maunday Thursday meals. I am now in a United Methodist church that will apply ashes this evening and has a number of Lenten Bible studies, one of which focuses on the giving up of things for the season.

    Thank you for this post. It made it clear that our Protestant engagement in such things isn’t “wrong” as I’ve seen some sentiment around the web as of late.

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  1. […] don’t want to wear the ashes and some believe that it’s just for Catholics (heads up: it’s not), my family made the trek to church — on a school night, no less — and walked forward […]

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