Doing Ash Wednesday

I got a call and email from a colleague I respect asking about Ash Wednesday services. Said colleague is Unitarian Universalist, is not Christian and is not hostile (indeed, empathetic) to Christianity. I thought I would make my reflections public, because such mutual inquiries can go far into good practices about religiously specific observances.

About ten years ago, there was a sea-change among Unitarian Universalist Christians: defensiveness and self-pity turned into optimism, outreach and self-assertion. I’ve written about this before, and to sum up, sloppy misappropriation of Christian distinctives will not be silently tolerated. There was a fair measure of pouting from those who felt their liberty — I would say license — was being limited, but the climate seems to be better and more respectful across the board now.

That said, not all Christian observances hold equal weight. I cringe when I see erzatz Communion conducted, and flower-n-bunnies Easter services make me question the mind of the preacher and the patience of the congregation. This is because the dominical sacraments and the Easter Cycle, plus the value of Christian scripture and the internal relationships of the Christian Church are terribly important. But what about Ash Wednesday?

It seems to me that there are two sets of Christian observances that more open to non-Christian adaptation. The first is those that were adapted (or have elements taken) from other religious traditions and thus have something of a hybrid character. This is particularly true if they have a set of folk traditions; Christmas is the clearest example. If you want to consider the Incarnation without distractions, you will have to make arrangements before or after Christmas. The second set are those observances that fill a logical need, but the placement and customs are less than universal. Trinity Sunday comes to mind; so does Ash Wednesday. You won’t find even the outline of a Christian consensus on either, so I’m not going to fight about who can or should do what, provided any adapted observance is respectful.

More on the how-to next time.

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Categorized as Worship

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Hi Scott — I appreciate your blog very much. I’m a friendly colleague of PeaceBang’s (and post on her beauty blog under another name) and an Episcopalian (raised UU, but that is another story). Thought you might like to see (the word “enjoy” somehow doesn’t quite do it for Ash Wednesday!) a bit of writing I did for the recently defunct The Witness, the progressive Episcopal/Anglican periodical. It was one of those “homily help” reflections on the scriptures for people who preach and anyone else interested. The theology isn’t quite the one you advocate in the post above, but still —

    It’s from two Lents ago, but the lament is still appropriate, I think.

    Blessings — and enjoy the carnival season while it’s still with us ;-).


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