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Etymologically, the word itself is unimpressive. It can be traced to an Old English word from the late Middle Ages that simply meant "springtime." But its purpose has been reflected upon and practiced in profound ways. For most of church history, it has been a somber time of fasting. Though a select few still actually fast today, that practice has largely been replaced with the giving up of one particular luxury or activity. It's a 40 day fast...although if you were to count on your calendar from Ash Wednesday to Easter, you would actually come up with 46 days. That's because Sundays "don't count." The faithful still considered it important to celebrate, worship, and break the fast on Sundays as they approached Easter. If you exclude Sundays, you do get 40.
But like many things, Lent has picked up elements of cultural fad. Lots of people still talk about giving up things for Lent, but we've lost the meaning in two major ways. For one, we announce and brag about what we're giving up for Lent, and sometimes talk about how difficult it is to abstain from whatever we've chosen. But remember what Jesus said?
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)And secondly, we give up things that don't amount to any kind of sacrifice or self-denial and can't be replaced with time for study, prayer and meditation. I maintain that the purpose of giving up something for Lent is to use the time you would have spent on that thing or activity for drawing closer to God. This is why, unless you're actually fasting, giving up one particular food or beverage item doesn't make this cut for most people. Some have been able to articulate spiritual, humane, and health purposes for the long-standing practice of giving up certain kinds of meat, but in general I suspect that this has become a legalistic prescription.
Ash Wednesday in a hurry? Get ashes outdoors...
Apparently, some churches are offering drive-though imposition of ashes. In other words, if your life is too busy to take an hour to come join other believers in an Ash Wednesday service, not to worry. You can just stop in the parking lot, roll down your window, get your ashes, and go about your life as it was.
To try to be fair, churches that have done this have reported that it seems to have an effect on some people. One article said that "some people were overcome with emotion and cried as they rolled down their windows."
Would I rather people take a drive-by option than not do it all? I'm not sure. It all depends on what they plan to do in their spiritual life beyond that point. If the ashes are for religious points rather than the start of some form of spiritual discipline and self-denial, I say don't bother. I suppose lots of things in our culture have become "drive-through." But when we do this with church, we totally neglect two key areas.
One, fellowship. We have lost a lot of ground in understanding and appreciating what Christian community (koinonia in Greek) is really about. You can't get it from your car as you're passing through. Faith was never meant to be lived out in isolation. Some people say they don't participate in church because they don't want to feel that rules or beliefs are forced on them. But at its core, this is not the purpose of church. To participate in Christian community is to affirm that we are all different parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and that we need each other. We give ourselves too much credit when we think that we can hear, understand, and follow God completely on our own. The original New Testament Greek word for church (ekklesia - the "ones called out") is a collective term. It is theologically impossible to "do church" on one's own. Indeed, to submit ourselves to the guidance and accountability of community is part of how we express the Christian call for humility. "Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought..." (Romans 12:3)
Secondly, in "drive-through church," we've also lost the value of self-denial. Perhaps there are some who genuinely want to come to an Ash Wednesday service but can't (those who have to work, feel ill, or struggle with mobility, for example), but for most, accepting the drive-through method of this very important act of worship is pretty clear evidence that we don't understand its meaning. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of self denial. Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). The practice of self-denial is deeply important for us today. The season of Lent is a perfect time to practice this. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote,
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem...The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.When we put forth the effort to engage this realm (and it does require effort), I believe we will rediscover for ourselves the meaning of Jesus' great declaration: "For whoever tries to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25)
Update: after posting this blog, I heard that Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, received ashes from an airport chaplain before departing for an international trip. Admittedly, I did not think of this potential, legitimate drive-through ashes situation!