Use of ashes in Ash Wednesday ritual spreads among Protestants

February 24, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Pat Rothrock will go to church today to hav her forehead marked with ashes. But Ms. Rothrock is not one of the Roman Catholics who, along with Episcopalians and many Lutherans, have traditionally streamed into their churches on Ash Wednesday for the ceremony that opens Lent, the 40 days of prayer and fasting leading to Easter.

Ms. Rothrock is a Methodist, a retired missionary and church worker. She is among a growing number of Protestants whose congregations are adopting the use of ashes, a symbolic practice once strongly associated with Catholicism.

Last year, the 9 million-member United Methodist Church approved a new Book of Worship that added an Ash Wednesday service in which congregants are invited to receive the smudge of ash in the form of a cross on their foreheads. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with 2.8 million members, will publish a new Book of Common Worship this year including a new Ash Wednesday service also using ashes.

The use of ashes is a practice that Christianity inherited from Judaism as a symbol of mourning and repentance. By the Middle Ages, Western believers began putting ashes on their heads to remind them that their bodies would eventually turn to dust but that their souls still faced judgment after death. Later, many Protestant churches abandoned the rite, emphasizing Bible reading, preaching and simpler, more spontaneous worship.

"For most of the congregation, this has been a powerful way of marking the beginning of Lent and getting in touch with one's own limitations, sins and mortality," says the Rev. Edward C. Horne, the pastor who introduced the practice seven years ago at Ms. Rothrock's congregation, the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a United Methodist congregation on West 86th Street in Manhattan.

In the mid-1980s, the Rev. M. Lawrence Snow introduced the use of ashes to the First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Conn., and more recently to the United Methodist Church in Simsbury, Conn., where he is now pastor.

"The people were quite open," he says, although some were self-conscious about the rite's association with the Catholic Church. But, he said, "Repentance and mortality are universal things."

Professor Heather Murray Elkins, who teaches a class in worship at the theological school of Drew University in Madison, N.J., says Methodists and some other Protestants have been "reclaiming the service" for the last dozen years. Drew University is a United Methodist institution.

In many regions of the country, "the mark of the ash was the definitive sign distinguishing Protestants and Catholics," she says. "So some churches have services where ashes are not actually imposed on the foreheads or people are given ashes on the hand or given a small piece of cloth with ashes on it."

But Ms. Rothrock prizes the link that ashes give her with other branches of Christianity.

Ms. Rothrock, who was a Methodist missionary in Zaire from 1959 to 1976 and then worked for the African office of the church's Board of Global Ministries, calls the Ash Wednesday practice "a step toward unity" among Christians.

The use of ashes has never been a practice among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who celebrate Easter on April 19 and will begin their Lent next Monday.

The Rev. Deborah A. McKinley, who handles questions of worship for the national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says the Ash Wednesday service was part of a two-decade effort by her church to "recapture the Christian year," the cycle of holy days and seasons.

"We are discovering the importance of ritual action and its ability to draw us beyond the cerebral," she says. "The marking of congregants with the cross, the accompanying words -- 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return' -- and the ashes themselves really draw people into the depths of the mystery of who Christ is for us."

This will be the third year that ashes are offered at Jessie Lee Memorial United Methodist Church in Ridgefield, Conn. Its pastor, the Rev. Randy Day, says parishioners had indicated that the solemn and meditative character of the ritual was a welcome balance to the upbeat tone of most Sunday services.

Professor Elkins also says the Ash Wednesday rite is gaining popularity among Protestants because "it is the one place in the liturgical year where people can gather to openly grieve together."

Ashes for the service are traditionally made by burning the palms used at the Palm Sunday celebration the previous year. Mr. Day recalls getting ashes from nearby Episcopal churches the first year his church conducted the service.

Professor Elkins once served a West Virginia church that "couldn't afford palm branches, so they ground up a coal lump and were marked with coal dust, which deepened the ritual by linking it with black lung," the disease affecting many miners.

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