Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ancient Penitence

For the first time in many years, I began Ash Wednesday with a service and the imposition of ashes. (In previous years, the only service I could attend was at night but this year it was the other way 'round).

One advantage of doing it early is that it makes fasting until service pretty easy. (Just to avoid this loophole, I had bread for lunch and held off on a real meal until dinner). Another (dis)advantage is facing the world with a smudge on my forehead.

To prepare for any conversations, I tried to do a little research on the practice. In my Oxford History of Christian Worship, it mentions Ash Wednesday only twice. In one, it speculates that a penitential Lent began in the late 4th century and the 46 days (pushing it back to Wednesday) was common “before the late fifth century.” (P. 118) It also mentions Ash Wednesday as a time of penitence, established by the late 4th century in the Gelasian Sacramentary. This oldest extant Roman missal mentions scheduling Ash Wednesday (p. lxxiv in the 1894 English edition) but not ashes.

Fortunately, I was also watching my favorite podcast, Issues Etc., and their Monday show included a discussion of the topic. The third segment was entitled “Does the Season of Lent Have Pagan Origins?” and was a 25 minute interview with Pastor Joseph Abrahamson of Clearwater Lutheran Parish, a group of LCMS churches in Minnesota. (Highly recommended for anyone contemplating the meaning of Lent).

The gist of the interview was to summarize his research for the article “Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent,” published earlier this month online on the Steadfast Lutherans website. Pastor Abrahamson had much better information than the learned scholars from my liturgical library.

Here’s the money quote:
St. Athanasius, who led at the Council of Nicea to defeat Arianism—a denial of Christ being truly God and man in one person—was a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote annual Festival letters to the Church as they prepared to celebrate Easter. In the year 331 he wrote in order to encourage his congregations in Egypt to keep the Lenten fast for 40 days. Athanasius directs the readers to many Scriptural examples and exhortations to moderation, self-control, and fasting for repentance, Athanasius gives several Bible examples of the 40 day fast, especially of Christ’s 40 day fast...
He continues
That this was practiced in Rome and elsewhere is seen in St. Athanasius’ letter from the year 340 A.D. when he returns from a meeting of pastors/bishops from all around the world, and he encourages his own congregations to continue in the same practice of the 40 day Lenten fast as does “the rest of the whole world.”
So for my Christian (particularly low church) friends, I’d say that Lent was practices at least as early as 331, as old as the Council of Nicaea (325) and older than the final Nicene Creed itself (381). For my non-Christian (or unknown) friends, I’d give a simple punchy statement: “Ash Wednesday was already the norm by 340 A.D.”

Abrahamson is not very helpful on the ash question itself: the name is known, but the imposition of ashes is not explicitly mentioned. He recites various examples of why ashes were a common form of penitence in the Old Testament, but no smoking gun.

Thus armed, I walked out to a variety of meetings at work today, dreading the awkwardness but reminding myself that we need to live our beliefs (and not leave our light under a basket). Among my coworkers, one Christian said she wished she could go to service today but probably couldn’t; another talked about his dilemma as a moderate Presbyterian as the PCUSA splits into its traditionalist and loony left contingents. Several others recognized the significance but didn’t otherwise comment. Only two people said “you have something on your forehead,” one of whom was corrected by another person in the same meeting: “It’s Ash Wednesday.”

Perhaps the most interesting discussion was with a Jewish woman in her 30s who (to the later distress of her mother) had ashes imposed in her parochial school kindergarten: it’s her oldest religious memory. We talked briefly about penitence: it was a rare chance at work to highlight Judeo-Christian commonalities in an increasingly secular culture.

We (Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist) are all imperfect, sinful beings following down the millennia-old path of our spirtual forebears, Adam and Eve. As the priest quoted Genesis this morning as he imposed the ashes: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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