Let me preface this post with this: I do not come from a liturgical tradition. Some people may say that i come from a "low church" tradition, so I do not see what the perceived power or function of a lot of the liturgies of these "high church" traditions. Also let me say that as an actor and theologian, I understand how some of the liturgy is a way to reenact moments in spiritual and religious history and explain complex theological ideas i n a way that the common person in the church pew could understand and believe. However I think the value of liturgy has gone to extremes. Today I can only focus on the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday.
Yesterday was my first Ash Wednesday experience. Coming from the South where there are fewer Catholic churches than there are emus (you would be surprised at how many emus there are in South Carolina, but that is another story for another day) and more baptist and non-denominational churches, Ash Wednesday was mostly a couple of words printed in blue on my mom's wall calendar. In fact, I thought Lent was was that white stuff you got on your black pants on Sunday morning. Anyway I am rambling, but I have a point.
I went to two Ash Wednesday services at Widener University yesterday. Being an associate chaplain and a Baptist Campus Minister (depending on who you ask) I find it important to examine the faith practices of students on campus. The first one was in the morning and was led by an Episcopalian priest. 120 people had shown up. Many of those people were Catholic and some of them had problems with the imposition of ashes by someone who was not a Catholic priest. In fact, as soon as they got ashes they all left although the priest had more to do. In a later conversation a young lady asked the question "Do my ashes count?" because he was not Catholic.
This brings me to my main point to ponder: Is the power in the ashes or the priest?
This is a trick question because as I understand liturgy the answer is both yet neither.
Let me explain:
I say neither because the ashes on the forehead does nothing other than place a black spot on your head. There is no mystical or magical event in placing this on your head. It is mostly symbolic and does not make you any more holy or set apart in God's sight.
Therefore since there is no power in ashes, then the catholic priest himself does not have any special power to create holier ashes, or empower these ashes with any more holiness or special God power than a priest or pastor from any other denomination. I, as a baptist preacher, could administer these ashes and have the same effect.
The power in the ashes are in remembrance and action. The purpose of the ashes is to remind you of the sin and transgression in your life. Also they remind you that your life is short and you will return to ashes and dust the saying "ashes to ashes and dust to dust." Therefore the power of Ash Wednesday lies in the power of acknowledging one's sin and committing to repentance and following after Christ. Therefore you have been marked as a follower of Christ and are therefore commanded to live a holy life.
The power in the priest lies in the authority that you have given him or her in your life. That is the power in all preachers and pastors. They can only influence your life as much as you listen and learn from them. That goes with all teachers and people in authority. The priest has the added assumption that they do speak for God and teach the things of God.
The second Ash Wednesday service was last night at 8:30 and was led by a Catholic Priest. This was attended by 50 people, and was more ordered and the people remained for the duration of the entire program. This priest had power, for the people gave it to him.
Ultimately the true power comes from neither the priest nor the ash, but from Almighty God, Jesus the Christ and the cross upon which he died. It also comes from our obedience to following Christ and doing what He called us to do.
Hair (the Theolobster)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.