November 25, 2020

My Ash Wednesday Dilemma: In Which Your Internet Monk Asks for Help From The Audience

girl-ashes-3.jpgFor the past hour, I’ve been trying to find a Protestant church nearby where I can go for Ash Wednesday service on February 6.

If you don’t know where I live, let me put it this way: There are probably more churches marking Ash Wednesday in some Muslim countries than there are churches doing so within an hour of me.

My research says that participating in this ancient and meaningful beginning to the season of repentance and preparation for Holy Week and Easter will require me to go no less than 50 miles in any of three directions. In two of those options, I wouldn’t bet they will have a service because they barely have enough living people for Sundays and must share a minister with other congregations.

My closest sure thing is an hour away, which is sounding pretty good right now. (They’ve even got pancakes going on Tuesday night, which is even more persuasive.)

Don’t take this as a lack of interest in church in our area. There will be any number of “Gospel singin’s,” youth pizza parties, snake handling services, prayer meetin’s, revivals, and business meetings the same day. If my spiritual life were defined by these things, I’d be in heaven.

It’s a simple matter of post-evangelical reality. What Christians are doing around the world and for hundreds of years has almost vanished entirely here in rural Kentucky. Were it not for the Roman Catholics and a few hardy Episcopal older ladies, Ash Wednesday would only be accessible in a Wikipedia entry.

Yes, I see that question. Am I whining? Oh YES SIR. You are correct. That whining sound is a whining sound.

So, I’d like to offer the IM readership some input here. In order to move me past my whining, narcissistic ways, I’m going to put some choices out there and solicit your views on what I should do.

Remember the following details: Wednesday is a work day for me (teaching school), so if the service is in the morning, I’ll have to allow 3 hours round trip, and will still miss some classes. If it is in the evening, no work will be missed. Let’s assume it’s noonish….then I’ll have to miss most of the work day. (I don’t like to miss work for any reason.)

My wife works too. She’ll probably go the Roman Catholic service. I won’t (You can fuss at me about that if you want. I’m up for it.)

The past several years, I’ve had Ash Wednesday services here on campus as part of campus ministry. They are attended by about 15-20 co-workers. If I do it in the evening, I have a few more people, with some of our students participating as well. But I’d like to just participate, not create and lead the service.

So should I:

a) Forget about this Ash Wednesday nonsense and think like a good Presbyterian regarding the trappings of popery.

b) Have an Ash Wednesday liturgy at home for family devotions.

c) Ignore my current estrangement from the RCC and go to Ash Wednesday at the local RC church, forgetting all that “separated brethren” shell game that I find so annoying.

d) Quit being such a whiner and create and lead an Ash Wednesday service here at our school.

e) Take time off work and go somewhere that’s having the service. If it means that much to me, what’s a couple of hours off work?

f) Go to the pancake supper and ask the rector if he can mark me a few hours early since I bought extra pancakes.

g) Other

Your answers should contain at least one explanation for your choice.

There is a small chance I’ll abide by the suggestion of the group. Small.


  1. E. If it’s that important to you, its more important than work- would you miss a Sunday service because you had to work (I’m presuming this is work you could do at some other time, and that you are not tied somewhere specific for x hours a day)? As a good Southern Baptist, we both know that Wednesday night prayer service is just as important as Sunday- this is just slightly different from a typical Wednesday prayer service and maybe not in the evening- whatever your problems with the RCs, if you don’t go, you’re being very Jesuitical!

  2. If it were me, I’d pick C, and just let the RCs think whatever they want to think about my ecclesiological status. I’ve done this to meet my Sunday or Holy Day obligations before while traveling (although, for the sake of their rules, I did not receive the Sacrament).

    However, if that bugs you so much that you’d be unable to dispose yourself to prayer, then find a good Anglican parish and pick E.

  3. Weird. No episcopal churches around? Greek orthodox? You may just have to go RC.

  4. I spent 5 years (Grades 2-6) in an Accelerate Christian Education school, where I memorized huge portions of scripture, but learned precious little about Christian history before Hudson Taylor. It was a narrow little world, that stressed the lostness off Catholics and Heathens alike. Our songs and our lessons were the content of our worship.

    I don’t know how narrow or wide the horizon is at your school, but the rhythms and rituals and richer worship of Lent would have done me good. So, if it won’t cost you your job, I’d ‘vote’ for D.

    Having said that, if the work environment won’t allow, go to a service one way or another. Not just the breakfast, but the full service. If you can manage, worship with at the RC church — though I know that may be tough. If not there, then take the time off, do the drive and get some ash on your forehead in another county.

    I don’t know if I’d call this whining. For those of us on Webber’s Canterbury Trail, this will always be a second language, and we’ll usually come off like boorish tourists.

  5. I had my first Ash Wednesday service in Seminary, my mentor at the CMA church was a bit suspicious but bit his tongue.

    Personally, I think a good deal of repentance might just happen at one of those snake handling churches. I can just see you with a rattlesnake in hand praying through every sin for forgiveness in exchange for the snake not giving you a little taste. 🙂

    Personally of all the options I love (f). Lots of pancakes, of course the gluttony might make for some irony.

    I am not going to give you a preference but I will ask you a question. Has this local RC parish given you the “separated brethern” rubbish? If so, ignore the rest of this. If not why project your internet frustrations on them? Putting them all into a collective ball is not fair. They are at least as internally fractured as protestants are, they just hide it under the coattails of the Vatican.

  6. I’d love to forward your post regarding your Ash Wednesday dilemma to all of the 120 or so members of our Lutheran congregation in Southern California.

    Each year we might see 12, or 18 people for the 7pm service Ash Wednesday worship service.

    With soccer games, and dinners to prepare, and dry cleaners to visit, and deals to cut, I guess the 10 or 15 minute drive that most of our members make is just asking too much. Plus, that’ll mean having to make it twice in one week when once is barely tolerable.

  7. I would say E) or C). This is obviously important to you and a good way to show solidarity with the tradition of the Christian West. B) and D) both strike me as trying to create a paper church, these things should be celebrated in the context of Church, not in spite of it.

    Wish my knowledge of churches in KY went farther south than Estill County, because I can’t think of anything near to you.

  8. Were it me, I’d pick b) in a heartbeat, but I’m no social butterfly.

    For you, e) is a strong option because it’s closest and there are pancakes.

    However, I think I vote c) for the following reasons:

    1. Scores points with the missus.
    2. No way you’ll be asked to lead.
    3. Proves you’re not emergent.

    As for your “estrangement”, just wear your [name deleted] t-shirt and everyone will know where you stand.

  9. If I were in your shoes, I would go for (c) or (e). Arguments for (c): it’s definitely the closest and most convenient for you, and you can do with your wife. However, it’s definitely a bummer to not be able to commune after getting smudged. If communing is important enough to be a deal-breaker, then go with (e).

    (If you care, (a) and (f) are non-starters for me, while (b) and (d) probably require more work than just driving out of town.)

  10. D.

    It is an opportunity for growth, for yourself and for the community. Do the service at the school. You have already listed out the reasons why it should be done in your post.

  11. Not to be ignorant, but is Ash Wednesday a “biblical teaching”, ie taught by the apostles or prophets, even Christ himself? Or is it a tradition that man put in place? If it is a Biblical mandate, or suggestion, than I think that churches need it. (I can’t find a reference biblically) If it is tradition, then we need to understand the meaning behind the tradition and make it a relevent tradition to todays world, if indeed it is relevent.

  12. Patrick Kyle says

    Option E gets my vote too. Sometimes a man has to do what he has to do. These things are important.

    Work you will always have. Ash Wednesday is once a year.

  13. I recommend either a version of a), or c). And my version of a) would be not to deem Ash Wednesday nonsense or to malign “popery,” but to place little importance on church services, even the ones we like.

  14. Michael,

    I’d suggest either (c) or (e).

    C – As far as I recall, RCCers don’t do Communion on Ash Wednesday. And I don’t think that the liturgy of receiving the ashes is one that you’d be expected to abstain from? There’s a lot of richness in a traditional liturgy on Ash Wednesday, and unless there’s an Anglo-Catholic or Eastern Church near you, the RCC would be the best bet.

    But, if you can’t “ignore [your] current estrangement”, I’d chose (e). Ash Wednesday is one of the most important days on the church calendar. Don’t start the season of penitence, fasting, and increased disciplines by opting out. Don’t try to ‘create your own’ Ash Wednesday, go join in somewhere.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for soliciting the opinions of this stranger.

  15. Chad Winters says

    D. I don’t think you’re a whiner, but it does seem that you have identified a deficency in your area not just for you, but others who might benefit and this could be the Spirit leading you to correct the problem. Maybe you could just keep it simple and somber.

    You might be integral to keeping this:
    “What Christians are doing around the world and for hundreds of years has almost vanished entirely here in rural Kentucky. Were it not for the Roman Catholics and a few hardy Episcopal older ladies, Ash Wednesday would only be accessible in a Wikipedia entry.”

    from happening.

  16. Why not give the service as a project to one of your classes or some students though not expressly believing ones in practical Christian studies.

    I think you could find it a very rewarding exercise to ask them to create a service that both resources it self from a historical christian tradition takeing the issues, meaning and theme’s of the season/festival while finding ways to authentically express work out their meaning for them.

    Could be wonderful
    or a completely wonderful disaster

  17. Firstly, ask yourself why it’s so important to you. Is it because you enjoy the ritualisation? Is it because you enjoy proclaiming your faith and repentance? Is it something you “just do”? Whatever the reason, identify that first, and he course you should follow will be clear.

    If it really is that important to you, and to your wife, take the time off and go together. In the end, the two most important things in your life should be God and your wife/family. Work comes down somewhat lower on the list.

    And my final advice? Pray. See what God says.

  18. Dan,

    To my knowledge, there is no clear and distinct Bible teaching about Ash Wednesday. BUT, Jesus, the apostles and many of the early converts were Jewish and there is a clear history of burnt offerings for sin in Temple worship. So, Ash Wednesday is clearly related to what God wanted from his chosen people.

    Michael, I don’t have any suggestions for you. There are no easy answers. But, I do like Matybigfro’s idea of asking the students to come up with a service.

  19. d.

    You want it. Other people might want it. You recognize its importance. Other people might recognize its importance.

    Plus, it gives you an opportunity create community with those around you, as opposed to attending somewhere and then not being seen for another year.

    Worship and fellowship occur in community. Don’t just “whine” about it. Do something about it.


  20. Do it at school. Teaching kids that there is a time for action, a time for reflection and that being a better person in the community in which they live is possible is a valuable life lesson. (And if that wouldn’t have made Sister Mary Atilla the Nun yell at me for a run on sentence…not sure what would.)

  21. You can’t have a good Easter if you don’t have a good Lent. You must begin well.

    You could go for G. This year find an Orthodox Church and begin lent in March and experience Pascha in May. Learn how the ancient church observed Lent. (It’s not easy – along the lines of pick up your cross and follow me.) Listen to the most magnificent sermon ever preached at 1 AM on Pascha. (It is loads better if you particpated in Great Lent rather than just read it, although it is smashing then, too.)
    If that doesn’t work for you, in this order I’d choose:

    C-2) find and Anglican or Episcopal church near by
    D) lead the service yourself
    B) family liturgy
    C-1) RC

  22. Ignore your current estrangement from the RCC and go to Ash Wednesday at the local RC church, forgetting all that “separated brethren” shell game that you find so annoying.

    I don’t know how your local Catholic parish does things, but here we have 2 Masses: 8AM and 6PM, and a simple service with the Distribution of Ashes at Noon (not Mass).

    So, perhaps you could assuage your pride and compromise. (No, don’t let loose the cannon of venom… it was indeed only a joke. I’ll use a smiley to prove it).


  23. Dan: The meaning of Ash Wednesday is summed up in the words you hear when the priest ashes you: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That message is completely Biblical, and it hasn’t gotten any less relevant lately.

    BTW, if there were any Eastern churches in Michael’s area, it wouldn’t do him any good. Ash Wednesday is purely a Latin practice. Plus, the EO celebration of Easter comes a lot later than the Latin date this year.

  24. I’m voting for “C” as well. Its ecumenical, and you could attend with your wife which is always a good thing!

  25. Bill Thomas says

    I vote for any of the alternatives, except (a) or (f)

    And as for Steve Brown, I’ve known him as a Bible teacher and not as a prophet. Good choosing!!!

  26. “d) Quit being such a whiner and create and lead an Ash Wednesday service here at our school.”

    Of course, I have a couple of questions …

    You seem to have created a small box for yourself here. Are you the only person who could both create and lead the service? Is there no one else who could help with either of those parts? Could you be responsible for creating and someone else lead or vice versa?

    You seem to get not a small amount of energy and joy out of turning your students back to the old ways and traditions of Christian faith. This looks to me like a remarkable intersection of opportunities in that regard. So if you could find some friends on campus to help with this, perhaps you could move towards a new school tradition, and find some refreshment for yourself as well.

  27. You’re ditching the snake-handling services for Ash Wednesday? Man alive, what’s wrong with you? Go with (G) Snakes! Snakes are awesome!

    Seriously though. There should be more churches in your area having an Ash Wednesday service than just the Romans. Someone needs to start a dialogue among area pastors about why their churches don’t celebrate it. Some of them are likely anti-Catholic, and some of them fear an anti-Catholic backlash from their congregants who don’t understand the relevance of the tradition. In any event you shouldn’t be the only one who is interested in observing it — and considering the turnout at the services you’ve held in years previous, you aren’t.

    Since it’s this Wednesday it’s a little late to lay the groundwork that would result in a local church holding an Ash Wednesday service this year. But there’s always next year. I’m not saying you need to start this discussion, but someone should. Do your area pastors meet on a regular basis?

    Meanwhile I say (F) Pancakes! I don’t know if the rector will have the ashes available but at least you can get some pancakes out of it.

  28. Chris – I went to an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic church my senior year of high school and when I stood up to go forward for the ashes I was told by my buddy that I couldn’t go. Don’t know if he was right, but that was my experience.

    Michael, we do an Ash Wednesday service every year here complete with the impostion of ashes. Call the UMC in Manchester or London and see if they are doing one. Ours is at 7 am and lasts about 30 minutes. If they do something similar you could go in the morning and be back before your first class depending on your schedule.

  29. Well, D seems to me the best option.

    And as for C – I don’t understand why it offends you not to commune at a Church for whose beliefs (like the one you site) you have contempt?

    It makes no sense. If I think a church’s belief is a “shell game,” why would I want to commune there???

    And coming to a Church whose beliefs you see as a “shell game” with all of that resentment and contempt seems like a profoundly uncharitable act – to sit there resentful and sneering? What do you bring to the, er…Table in that case?

    Because you know, the point is repentance of obstacles in your own spiritual life. Not highlighting resentment of what other Christians believe and teach.

  30. I’d go for D. I happen to be a “good Presbyterian” whose church has been offering Ash Wednesday services for several years. It has been a meaningful experience for me. It went from being a “Catholic thing” to a way that reminds me in very real ways what Lent is about and why I’m about to enter into it.

    It took some leaders in the local church saying, “Why can’t we offer an Ash Wednesday service?” to make it happen. Maybe that’s what God is calling you to do in your school and community.

  31. Michael,
    I’m a United Methodist pastor and many UMCs do Ash Wednesday. You might feel more comfortable with our less formal order of worship My experience with Ash Wednesdays has been (I wasn’t raised Methodist), important to me. RCCs allow any to receive ashes. Also Episcopalians do as well. Now, I couldn’t imagine keeping Lent and its spiritual disciplines without Ash Wednesday.

    I think going to the RCC might be a powerful statement for you, considering your feelings. As to having a service at home, I don’t think I would do that, for confessing and receiving the ashes in a public context is a powerful part of the service.

  32. There are some EOs in a house church in Lexington (2 hours away, whee I’d go to St. Patrick’s AMiA anyway)

    The only EO in Ky is in Louisville, 3.5 hours away. C’mon.

    I’ll check the big UMC in Corbin and London. (1 hour away)

    Dude dogging me about the RCC “Shell Game”: I don’t have contempt for the RCC. If calling the separated brethren thing a “shell game” means I have “contempt” for the RCC, then you must think that every non-Catholic has contempt for the RCC. And if one more Catholic says that I shouldn’t WANT to commune with my Christian brothers and sisters who insist I accept all of Rome before I get to the table of the Lord, then I’m going to scratch my nails on the chalkboard.

    We want to be unified….if you will accept 100% of our position. That sounds like a really good divorce lawyer.

  33. I’m a practicing Catholic who tries to attend Mass at least twice a week, and even I don’t go to the distribution of ashes. It’s the one service a year that anyone who was ever Catholic, no matter how lapsed, shows up for, even the ones who skip Easter and Christmas. The last time I tried I couldn’t even physically get into the building. And with small children and (this year) a baby, I’ve stopped even trying. I’m starting to think that Episcopalian ashes are likely to be just as good as Catholic ashes.

  34. I should add, so I think (b) sounds fine. Or, you could go to the Catholic service, and think about all of us Catholics who *do* consider you a fellow Christian (hey, I know my Baptist friends consider *me* a Christian, even though if I joined their church I’d have to be (re)baptized, which in my book equals “you’re not *really* a Christian yet”).

  35. o.h.- Go to the morning Mass, if you have that option. I’m not a “morning person,” but I always make the effort to get up early and go at 8. (It’s kind of a Lenten penance for me). At least where I’ve been, there are far fewer people there. Your C’sINO typically don’t come out till evening. Plus, there’s the added bonus of getting the opportunity to tell everyone why you have a “smudge” on your forehead. (No, not to be falsely-pious, but to help educate people about traditional Christian practices and observances).

  36. Michael, I may go back and read the comments. But really only one thing jumped out at me your post. I don’t particularly have a theological bandwagon. From a historical perspective, the Orthodox have a point and the entire Church of the West could be viewed as having chosen to be in schism with them. But that’s about as far as I’ll go.

    However, regardless of what else you may or may not decide to do on Ash Wednesday, I find it troubling that you would refuse to attend the Roman Catholic Mass with your wife because the official Roman Catholic perspective will not embrace or accept you on your own terms. I am most struck that love should not seek to have its own way. And I think that is especially true in an act of worship and in marriage.

    By all means find a Protestant Ash Wednesday service if you need one for yourself. But also attend the mass with your wife and participate in all humility and love. And if you cannot do that, I would ask myself why. I think we sometimes give rational, theological answers when the realities are much deeper than that.

    Well, advice over the Internet is worth what you pay for it. And I don’t pretend mine is any more insightful or helpful than that of anyone else. It’s probably less helpful than most. Still, this is the one thing which welled up from the depth of my being. And perhaps from echoes of my own failings and limitations. I thought I would offer it on the chance it might be helpful.

    I’m sorry if you think I’m “fussing at you.” I don’t intend to. I really have no real sense of loyalty or obligation to any of the splintered wreckage of Christendom. I may have an overdeveloped sense of loyalty that’s in play.

  37. Overdeveloped sense of loyalty to people is what I meant in the last sentence.

  38. I went back and read the comments. I don’t think the Orthodox do “Ash Wednesday” in the western sense. They don’t believe there should be any outwardly visible sign of your participation in the fast of Great Lent. I’m not really clear on the services, but I’m pretty sure Great Lent always begins on a Monday. So I don’t think the Orthodox would satisfy your desire for an “Ash Wednesday” service even if there were a Church or a mission nearby.

  39. I think you’re mistaken about the availability of Eastern Orthodox congregations in KY – there are more than just in Louisville. Here is the official listing (none super close to you though). I’ve heard good things about the one in Nicholasville.

    Archangels Orthodox Mission [1] (Bulgarian) – Fr. Germogen Tucker

    St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church (Antiochian) – V. Rev. Thomas Gallaway
    Panagia Pantovasilissa Greek Orthodox Church (GOARCH) – Rev. Fr. George Wilson

    Assumption Greek Orthodox Church [2] (GOARCH) – Rev. Fr. Eleftherios N. Legakis
    St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church (Antiochian) – V. Rev. Alexander Atty

    St. Athanasius Orthodox Church (OCA) – Fr. Justin Patterson

  40. Try to find an Orthodox parish and do lent there; it’s amazing! Short of that, go with the RCC.

  41. I vote for a. Only substitute the word Baptist for Presbyterian.

  42. I with Matybigfro and others… coach students/other adults in the creation and leading of an Ash Wednesday service there.

    Particularly in a service like Ash Wednesday where there’s not a lot of room for “winging it”, mot likely it will be a great experience for folks who don’t often get to create and lead services to do so.

    This year I gave Ash Wednesday to my associate and Good Friday to one of my elders.

    I’m nervous, but looking forward to just attending with my community…

  43. Thanks on the comment on the EOs in Ky. It’s still two hours away. To resign my job and become Orthodox, I’m going to need a large cash award.

    The RCC will not accept me on Christ’s terms. Unless I were to accept the RCC version of Christ’s terms, then I wouldn’t be typing this post at all. That observation chases its own tail.

    Rebaptism guy: I agree. That’s wrong.

  44. New Readers: I’m in zip code 40972. Get a map. Do the math.

  45. I’d say “C” or “D” – If C, treat it like a Lenten ascetic discipline. Even if there are some present on the Catholic side who think in unproductive ways, make it a point that you don’t do the same. It’s worth it if for no other reason than your wife. That, plus you just making it an act of choking something down for the sake of Love and the Body sounds good.

    D – No reason why you shouldn’t do this at the school. It could act as education for not only the students but for whoever comes.

    Depending on time, maybe you could do both. Work one around the other if you can – not sure if that’s possible. There you go, 2 more cents, I think you may have a dollar by now. 🙂

  46. Michael:

    This is not the direction you want to take this in, but I just want to say, again, that calling another church’s 2000 year old teaching a “shell game” is an expression of contempt. And I think you should amend your posts on that score to reflect the Orthodox. The way you are saying it, the EO would not accept you on “Christ’s terms” either, so I don’t understand the constant microscope on the RC on this score and the romanticizing of the Orthodox who consider all of us Western CHristians, RC or Protestant, equal heretics.

    And as to all the EO comments – their celbration of Lent is completely different from that of the Western Church. No “Ash Wednesay”.

    I still vote D. It would do a lot of good in your community, I would think.

  47. Since the ceremony truly matters to you, and you have serious reservations about attending the Roman Catholic service, my advice would be (e). To immerse yourself in tradition properly, go get your ashes from the Episcopalians.

  48. Michael:

    Having started in the Episcopal, gone to the Lutherans, then went to the Nazarenes, I completely understand where you are coming from. There is something about Ash Wednesday that really pulls at my strings. I don’t think you’re crazy about wanting it. I doubt the RCC’s will really care about where you stand in regards to their ways, they might very well be overwhelmed by all the people they only see a few times a year to even notice a newby.

    However, I think the best option is (D). You’ve spoken before about some Chinese students who have had absolutely no Christian experience. The historical nature of Ash Wednesday (1,500+ years) would speak to them with their culture of linking themselves to their ancestors.

    In addition, there is a nasty tendency in the protestant churches to toss out good stuff just because the RCC did/does it. This would be a good way to introduce something old to many who have never experienced Ash Wednesday. With some supervision from you (mostly to make sure that it is not a disaster), I think a student led service would be smashing. Besides, then if some really screams, you can always write it off as an exploration of other Christian traditions.

    However, I would expect that you would probably get more positives than negatives.

  49. Michael, the Greek Orthodox do not observe Ash Wednesday. They observe what is called Clean Monday.Also, the Orthodox are even more so restrictive with the Eucharist than the Catholics.Trying to commune in an Orthodox Church without being Orthodox would be a major mistake.Unless you like being embarresed. Do as I do , curse the darkness and bemoan your miserable state.

  50. It’s really astonishing how some good RC brothers and sisters seem to think that anything a Protestant says of a moderately negative nature- like my perfectly honest feeling of a “shell game” with RC (esp V2 and JP2) rhetoric toward Protestants- is some kind of anti-Catholic spew.

    You folks need to understand that those of us who love you and disagree with you understand perfectly the overtures you’ve made toward us, and understand perfectly well that you don’t like to hear anything negative when you feel like you’ve done everything to get us to come home except come over and drive us home.

    The fact remains that many of us feel that our coming half-way- and I, personally, have come a lot further than halfway. Ask certain TRs- has gotten us exactly there: halfway to where you are. Whatever Protestants object to, it’s insulting that we object to. Whatever you object to is just Christian tradition that we can’t see yet out here in the schism.

    If “shell game” hurts your feelings, you are too sensitive. If any Protestant tells you that you are separated brethren, but then treats you as far less, I’ll call them a silly name as well.

    Consider this: None of us are going to change the other one’s mind, so can we just be ourselves and not take it as being mean?