The Annual Imposition of Ashes & Scourging

There’s a clergy associate of mine who leaves me in stitches practically every time I’m around him. He’s from a liturgical denomination and says everything with a very staid and serious tone, which makes him all the more humorous.

Recently, we were talking about the Lenten season beginning with the rite of ashes (Ash Wednesday) followed by several weeks of prayer, fasting, and introspection. He glibly called it the “Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging.” That nomenclature cracked me up.

In the more liturgical, High-Church denominations, Ash Wednesday is a huge deal (as you probably know). In many other traditions, it’s either optional or viewed with downright skepticism.

“Will it add one hour to your life?”

Lent is one of those liturgical seasons that many Christians would just as soon ignore (and often do). After all, why submit yourself to ashes and scourging (so to speak). Will it add one hour to your life? According to Jesus, it will not.

So why do we even observe Lent the way we do? This is an appropriate question in light of Scripture and our current practices (or non-practices).

To answer it with any kind of legitimacy, we should probably take a leisurely stroll down Liturgical Lane (I just made that up—I’m so proud of myself).

The so-called liturgical calendar begins in late November or early December each year. It’s a one-year cycle that ostensibly takes us through a historical remembrance of the life of Jesus. Its first season is that of Advent, which consists of the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It’s called Advent, because it’s a time of expectant waiting and preparation as we approach the birth of the Savior. Some folks celebrate it. Others endure it.

The one everyone seems to enjoy is the next one, which we call Christmastide (also the name of one of my favorite Christmas albums by Bob Bennett). Celebrating the Savior’s birth is something we all seem to relish—for one reason or another. Then we move into what many feel is a downhill slide into obscurity.

Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Kingdomtide follow on the heels of Christmas. Although we make a big deal of Easter Sunday, every day is Resurrection Day for Christians. Plus, a lot of folks dislike the very term, Easter. It comes from pagan origins, so it can actually leave a bad taste in at least a few mouths.

Even the Pentecostals Don’t Celebrate

Pentecost should actually be one of our big celebrations. It is, after all, the birthday of the church. When the Holy Spirit shows up in a huge way, it should be recognized. Unfortunately, it often slides by without so much as a whimper. Even the Pentecostals among us don’t seem to revel in its power and significance.

Then the long season of Kingdomtide rolls in. It’s designated as the time for equipping disciples. It’s so ignored that many Christian groups simply call it “Ordinary Time.”

Maybe we could beef all this up by renaming our seasons. The Annual Imposition of Ashes and Scourging might be a good start.

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

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