Those Surprising Ashes

Richard J. Mouw

Lent always takes me by surprise. I’m never quite ready for it. This has always been my pattern, going back to my childhood days as a public school student when I would wander onto the playground on a warm spring morning to find that all the Catholic kids had ashes on their foreheads. I hadn’t even known that Ash Wednesday was approaching. And when my high-church friends would ask me what I had decided to give up for Lent, I usually mumbled that our kind of Protestants didn’t do that sort of thing. The fact was that I hadn’t given a single thought to the arrival of the Lenten season.

It’s not that I had no place in my rudimentary theological framework for the divine Passion. By the time Maundy Thursday came around—and certainly by Good Friday afternoon—I was quite caught up in the drama that would culminate on Easter morning. It’s just that those other folks—Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans—managed to pick up the rhythms much earlier than I did.

And it hasn’t gotten much better since. I now read the Desert Fathers, kneel with Benedictine monks, nod appreciatively when someone lectures on Orthodox iconology, and worship periodically in an Episcopal cathedral. But every year I’m still caught off guard, while many of my friends have made their Lenten preparations well in advance. Some obvious cultural factors are at work here. For example, my boyhood sense of the liturgical year was such that, while there certainly were quite a few Sundays between Christmas and Easter, we would hardly be inclined to call any of them “Epiphany.” Labels like this were much too “Catholic” for our tastes—they corresponded to a cluttered religion that we were anxious to avoid.

But I am convinced that the sociology here is undergirded by a certain theology. The Heidelberg Catechism says that Jesus delivered us from the torments of hell “by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier.” As an account of my own instinctive theological understanding of such matters, the Catechism puts the “especially” and the “but also” in exactly the right places; and I suspect that my instincts here are quite representative of much of conservative evangelicalism. We are concerned to emphasize the “payment” and “transactional” elements of the work of the Cross in such a way that the “but also earlier” dimensions of Christ’s sufferings become difficult to discern theologically.

There are points here where my theology, and that of many of my fellow evangelicals, needs correction. And there may even be some hope for me yet on this score. Certainly, some other evangelicals are developing a more adequate sense of the full dimensions of Christ’s incarnational ministry than I have been operating with.

But maybe there was also a healthy impulse at the core of the theology of Lent that has shaped my sensitivities, one that ought not to be lost even as the necessary theological reform takes place. Maybe it’s a good thing to preserve an element of surprise about the onset of Lent. The intense sufferings of the Savior, as he deliberately set out for the Cross, must never seem just the “natural” next step in the liturgical f low of things. There’s something to be said for wandering onto the playground on a warm spring morning not quite prepared for the ashes of Lent.

Richard J. Mouw taught philosophy for seventeen years at Calvin College before becoming professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1985, Fuller provost in 1989, and then president of Fuller in 1993. This essay is excerpted from the Reformed Journal, March 1987. Used with permission.