Roman Catholics grow up hearing the words on Ash Wednesday as they receive a sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads:
“For dust you are and to dust you will return.”
But Christians at many Protestant churches around the city will be hearing those words from Genesis 3:19 today as they, too, are marked by ashes on the first day of Lent, the 40-day somber season leading to Easter.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
Protestant churches in recent years have increasingly turned to the rite to increase spirituality and devotional preparation for Easter Sunday among their members.
“There is a trend … toward more sacramental forms and it is not surprising to see the recovery of imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday,” said the Rev. Daniel K. Dunlap, vice president of Houston Graduate School of Theology and a liturgy expert. The rite was generally abandoned by Protestants after the Reformation, although Episcopalians continued to observe it, he noted.
Among Protestant churches observing Ash Wednesday today are:
€¢ First United Methodist Church, where 600 to 800 members will receive ashes made from burned palm fronds during services at both campuses.
€¢ Memorial Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), where about 225 students at the church’s school and more than 200 church members are expected to be given the sign of the cross in ashes.
€¢ Memorial Drive Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where associate minister John Malget will distribute ashes to 70 members. He estimates that up to half of his denomination’s churches in the Houston area now distribute ashes.
While most Baptists do not observe Ash Wednesday, the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, will administer ashes at a Rothko Chapel service tonight.
“I put my thumb into a bowl of ashes and I put the ashes on someone’s forehead and tell him he is going to die,”said Rutledge, a member of the Amercian Baptist denomination. “It is incredibly powerful.”
Reminder of mortality
Patricia Long, a Covenant member since 1968, will feel that power.
“By now it is a familiar ritual that is a meaningful service to me,” she said. “It definitely reminds me of the fact that we are all mortal and it calls me to be a better person.”
And along with ashes, Lenten sacrifice also has increased among non-Catholics, although it may be in the form of additional work at church or more prayer devotion rather than giving up something like candy, Dunlap said.
Before Associate Pastor Bart Day arrived at Memorial Lutheran 10 years ago, the church did not observe Ash Wednesday. He said the rite draws people into faith and helps keep their minds focused.
The Rev. Steve Wende introduced ashes at smaller churches he served in Kingsville and San Antonio, but found the rite already was in use at First United Methodist Houston when he arrived in 2001.
“It has been around for a while, but it wasn’t as popular,” said Wende, who fasts one day a week during Lent. “It has been much more widely practiced in the last 10 to 15 years.”
The imposition of ashes officially became part of Methodist observance in 1992 edition of the denomination’s Book of Worship. The practice is optional, however, and congregations are not required to use it.
“We ask the people to receive the ashes first as a sign of their humility to Christ and second as their witness to the world,” Wende said. “Its power has been rediscovered. It is the power of humbling yourself before the cross.”