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Evangelical Angst About Ash Wednesday

Marcin Mazur/UK Catholic

David Mills - published on 02/18/15

He is clearly not pleased and I can see why. The adoption by Evangelicals of some Catholic practices cheers me, however, because it is a gain for them, an expansion of their ways of living their faith, and one that reduces the gap between divided Christians. And, to be honest, because it opens a way for them to understand what the Catholic Church is about.

Carl is right that they’ve picked pieces they like without enough thought about the thing from which they’re picking pieces, but as a Catholic I think that’s a blessing rather than a mistake. He wants them to be more consistent and coherent Protestants and I would like them to be Catholics, and movement from one to the other requires some inconsistency and incoherence, the way a man wanders back and forth in the forest trying to find his way until he sees in the distance the place he is looking for.

The Church offers riches like an over-loaded wagon in a fairy tale, spilling gold coins every time it hits a pothole. Evangelicals can find in Catholic practice many things they can use just by walking along behind it. Though they have in their own tradition ways to express penance and forgiveness, as Carl notes, Ash Wednesday — the whole rite, not just the imposition of ashes — offers them a more dramatic way of hearing the truth and enacting it.

The question for them is how much they can take and adapt to their own purposes without having to face the claims of the Church from which they’re taking the things they like. I think rather a long way, because the Church draws upon a wisdom that it is not exclusively Catholic. You can enjoy the imposition of ashes without asking “Who is Peter?”

But there should come a point where you ask, “What is this thing from whom I’m always taking? What makes it a thing from which I can take so much?” As Carl says, more pointedly: “If your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.”

If I may, here are two more articles on Ash Wednesday: "Remember That Thou Art Dust", a reflection on the meaning of the rite, and "Hey, Buddy, Jesus Said No Ashes", a response to a criticism some of our Evangelical friends make.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary.

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