True confession time: I am not a perfect Methodist. The rituals and traditions that have been passed down for generations in traditional Christianity are somewhat foreign to me, and I spent several years faking my way through various portions of church services. It wasn’t until I began studying at Wesley Theological Seminary that I realized I should probably learn about some of these customs so that I might be able to enjoy all aspects of worship, instead of merely mumbling my way through it until we reached the music.
Growing up in a rural mountain town, I attended a Pentecostal church in my younger years before we moved to a Baptist church when I was in middle and high school. The music was rich, filled with the rhythm of bluegrass and soul of gospel, but words such as “sacraments,” “liturgy” and “creed” sounded much more foreign to me than the speaking of tongues that is often associated with those in the Pentecostal faith. I once attended our town’s United Methodist Church with a friend and found myself perplexed as everyone began reciting words together that I would later learn were the Apostle’s Creed. In my youthful naivet, I scoffed at the notion of traditions, which seemed stuffy. At the time, my church saved communion for special occasions, and the only things I had memorized were the Lord’s Prayer for recitation at ball games and John 3:16, Romans 10:9 and other salvation-related scriptures.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I had little to no understanding of Ash Wednesday; nor did I see any importance in celebrating this holiday that held no memories from my childhood. However, two years ago, I was convicted when my pastor called on our congregation to participate in Ash Wednesday. He claimed that all Christians should attend this sacred and holy service. But, why? If I’m not scheduled to participate on the worship team, do I really need to celebrate a distant “Catholic” ritual that has no relevance in my life?
Reluctantly, I attended the service that week, and I was shocked to see our building overflowing with people. Hundreds of congregants sat together as we began to do all the things my former self would have been uncomfortable with. We prayed an unknown corporate prayer together in unison (luckily the words were on the screenwin!), we sang traditional hymns and we talked about words such as “repentance” and “sin.”
Then, the pastoral team took time to actually explain the “imposition of ashes,” and I realized that I was not alone. Others in our congregation were unfamiliar with these traditional rituals as well. The pastors explained that ashes serve as a reminder of our mortality and imperfection. I learned that Christians have been using ashes in formal services to mark the beginning of Lent since the tenth century, but the practice of using ashes to signal grief and repentance can be seen in the Old Testament. It has been around long before Catholicism, and I shouldn’t view the practice as exclusive to this denomination of Christianity. I began to picture people all throughout the world taking part in a similar practice. As the music played, rather than focusing on the rhythm, harmonies and melodies, I watched person after person walk forward, humbling themselves in front of hundreds, as they received ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Government leaders, teachers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, custodians, children, elderly, parents, childlesseach of us were different, yet the samewonderfully and beautifully made by our creator yet tragically flawed and in pursuit of perfection through Christ. Shockingly, I was soon moved to tears, in public, which is fairly out of character for me. I was simply overwhelmed with the beauty and unity that this ritual brought.
I would encourage you, as we begin this Lenten season, to consider attending an Ash Wednesday service, either at Floris UMC or at a church in your own community. Be a part of something that connects us each as individuals to Christians all around the globe, both past and present. Be a part of a ritual that uses something as small and basic as ashes to convey a message that is anything but small and basic. Take part in a piece of our Christian history that we can be proud ofa ritual that is anything but antiquated. It is a reminder that at our core, we are followers of a religion that was founded in grace, humility, love and unity.