A Baptist View on the Imposition of Ashes

By Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley

Ash Wednesday marks the official beginning of the season of Lent. On this day, Christians all over the world receive a mark of ashes on their foreheads as an outward sign of an inward confession. Four year ago, I shared my vision that this congregation participate in the distribution, or imposition of ashes to mark this occasion. Initially there were many questions about what this act means and why the Alfred Street Baptist Church would participate in an observance that many associate with the Roman Catholic Church.

It is important to remember that much of what we do in Christian Protestantism, even though not fully acknowledged, is shaped and influenced by our Catholic roots. In Catholicism, the distribution of ashes is not a sacrament, meaning the ashes themselves are not a means of receiving grace; therefore non-Roman Catholics are permitted to receive the imposition of ashes. Many Protestant denominations distribute ashes as a memorial of the true purpose of Lent. When we participate in the imposition of ashes, we acknowledge that we are a part of the Church Universal.

As a member of the Church Universal who is unashamedly Baptist, I am committed to the doctrine of the infallibility and sufficiency of scripture. Thus, any practice of my discipleship must be informed, shaped, and supported by the word of God. The distribution of ashes, although not biblically commanded, is biblically supported, (as is the case with the celebration of Christmas). In the Bible, mourning and repentance were often marked by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes. Job wore ashes when he repented before God (Job 42:6); Jeremiah called Israel to wear ashes as they repented of their sin (Jer. 6:26); Daniel attached ashes to his fasting (Daniel (9:3); Jesus chastised the cities of Bethsaida and Chorazin for not repenting with ashes (Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13), and in Ezekiel 9:4 a messenger of God is commanded to mark the foreheads of those who were repenting before the Lord.

The ashes are created by burning the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. This serves as a reminder that even though we celebrated Christ’s act of redemption and our salvation, we still must repent repeatedly because we continue to sin. The ashes remind us that we come from ashes and to ashes we will return. They are mixed with oil in our tradition as a way of making them stick and reminding us that our sins are ever with us. However, here is the good news of Jesus Christ: the mark on our foreheads is in the shape of the cross, for it was on the cross that Christ paid the price for our sins and redeemed us back unto God. The mark of the cross is a visible witness for all to see as we boldly and without shame proclaim our faith to the world and our commitment to take up our cross and follow him.