By David L. Holmes
On February 22 the Republican Party held its presidential debates in Arizona. I watched the debates on a treadmill at my sports club. It was Ash Wednesday. Of the four candidates, three had backgrounds in Christian churches known to hold special services on that day. Only Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith does not commemorate Ash Wednesday, did not.
Late that afternoon I suddenly realized that I had only ten minutes to reach the 5:30 Ash Wednesday service at my church. Although Episcopalians do not flog worshipers who enter church late, it is still meet and right to arrive on time. If that service had been in the home church of my youth, I would simply have walked to it — four blocks. This year, a journey of two miles by car was necessary through joggers, children playing, and a business district to arrive at my church.
Fierce concentration got the car to the stoplight two blocks from the church at 5:25. But as everyone knows, the light at that corner is the Second Longest Light in Town. It lost its front-runner status when a new light was erected — of all places — on the road that contains Hairstyles by Dolores and Big Jim’s. Thus it was 5:27 before any car budged. I pulled into the church’s parking lot precisely at 5:30.
By that time the procession that opened the Ash Wednesday service was already in the chancel. Arriving late was reminiscent of all the Sundays when my wife and I could never get our young children dressed and organized to arrive at church on time. Without the benefit of past experience, I would have wondered how processions ever got to the front of any church.
Decades ago in the Midwest, my classmates and I lacked the ability to differentiate among Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, and Una Sancta Movement Lutherans. Thus anyone on the streets or in a classroom with smudges on the forehead on Ash Wednesday was a Roman Catholic — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Because Protestants try to follow the practices of early Christianity, most Protestant churches then resisted the idea of administering ashes. And saints’ days, holy days of obligation, and the whole idea of a Lenten season of repentance and fasting leading up to Easter — these practices mostly emerged at the dawn of the Middle Ages. The repentance of religious people in sackcloth and ashes goes back to pre-history, but a special Ash Wednesday service is distinctly medieval.
Over the years Ash Wednesday services have broadened in their appeal beyond Roman Catholicism. They now attract not only mainline Protestant churches but also a growing number of evangelical congregations, including megachurches. In no Christian tradition are the services obligatory. But when held, they are surprisingly well attended, perhaps because they serve as an appropriate reminder of human mortality. The words the cleric says upon administering the ashes are somber but absolutely accurate: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes on the forehead inevitably raise the question of religious ostentation. Precisely for that reason, most Ash Wednesday services contain Biblical readings that warn against sanctimony. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” the prophet Isaiah writes in one such passage. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” Jesus says in a passage read that Wednesday in my church. “The hypocrites … disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. … But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others.”
So when do worshipers wash off the ashes? For many centuries the practice was to leave the forehead unwashed all day as a mark of a believing Christian. The preacher at the service urged the worshippers present to leave the ash on their forehead as they departed, not “as a sign of your piety … but as a sign that you are a member of Christ’s body.” Today, while most Roman Catholics may follow the older practices, many worshippers now tend to remove the ashes shortly after the service.
About one hundred people attended this service in my church, one of four held that day. Afterward, in an adjacent restaurant, three other booths contained worshippers who had come straight from the church with smudges on their foreheads. Presumably they would remove the ashes upon returning home. A forty-day period leading to Easter — one that ideally included fasting but above all a focus on good works — lay ahead.
In the Bible and in the Quran, forty is the number traditionally used to signify a solemn period during which God reveals his purposes to his people. The number is used in the descriptions of central events in the history of Israel and in the lives of the prophets and Jesus. Moses’ life is depicted as divided into three forty-year segments, and Mohammed was forty years old when he received his first revelation. Over the centuries Christianity has, of course, literalized this formerly connotative sacred number. For Episcopalians, Easter comes exactly forty days — excluding Sundays — after Ash Wednesday.
But back to February 22. The drive after dinner to the sports club required twelve minutes. There was little traffic — no one darting into the street, unaware even on that day of being a mortal creature of the earth; none of the usual bike riders in dark clothing who think that because they can see cars, cars can see them; no pedestrians forgetting for a moment that from dust they have come and that to dust they could easily return.
Prior to the start of the debates, Newt Gingrich — always a fountain of information — informed reporters that he had not attended Mass that morning because “it’s not a holy day of obligation.” He declared that he was giving up desserts — “all desserts” — for Lent. Throughout the debates Gingrich, Ron Paul, Romney, and Rick Santorum frequently discussed contraception, abortion, public prayer, separation of church and state, and other religious issues. But no candidate mentioned Ash Wednesday. Which was not surprising, for a day set aside to reflect on human mortality does not quite lend itself to political debate.
David L. Holmes is Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies, Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary, and the author of A Brief History of the Episcopal Church.