LITTLE ROCK — Next week, Christians around the world will pause to observe Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. It’s a holy day common in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, as well as in many mainline congregations rooted in liturgical worship. But it’s not often recognized by the nation’s largest Protestant group - Southern Baptists.
First Baptist Church of Jonesboro is an exception.
“I’m not real big on a lot of liturgy. However, I feel like we as Baptists, we sort of run up on the major days like Christmas and Easter without a lot of intentional preparation,” said pastor Bruce Tippit.
The church, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has been observing Ash Wednesday for about four years. This year’s service will begin at 6 p.m. and will include the Lord’s Supper and Scripture readings, silence and songs.
It will, however, be an Ash Wednesday service minus the ashes.
“It’s toned down from what our Methodist friends next door would do,” Tippit said. “We don’t do ashes and we do get criticism from some members who feel we’ve abandoned the faith. But most find it to be a very, very meaningful service.”
Traditional Ash Wednesday services usually include the imposition of ashes, meaning that a pastor or priest smudges each worshipper’s forehead with ashes, usually in the sign of the cross. (The ashes are made by burning the palm fronds that were blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, which is the week before Easter.)
“It has its roots in the ancient custom of wearing sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning or repentance,” said Kevin Robinson, priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Van Buren. “It’s a sign of our mortality and that we all fall short and we are all going todie. It’s a very somber occasion.”
Worshippers at Trinity come forward to receive the imposition of ashes during their Ash Wednesday service. Robinson will recite these words to each one: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
“This is a reminder that all things turn to dust,” he said. “That’s just one of the biblical messages - that this side of perfection of the kingdom all things wither away.”
While ashes won’t be a part of the gathering at First Baptist, the service will include the same somber tone.
“It will be a very reflective service,” Tippit said. “And very stark, without being oppressive but giving people an opportunity to really prepare their heart for the journey of Lent.”
In addition to the Ash Wednesday service, Tippit said the church provides a guide for members to use during Lent as a continuing reflection on the season. During Holy Week, the congregation also gathers with churches of various denominations to worship each day. They even have their own version of a Maundy Thursday Service, which they call a “personal Lord’s Supper service” that offers a come-and-go time of Communion and prayer.
Observing Lent and preparing for Easter offers the congregation time to intentionally focus on their own sins, Tippit said.
“My response to those who will criticize me is it’s never wrong to confess your sins,” Tippit said. “I’m not a pastor who beats that over their heads, but it’s just right that we take some time for introspection and allow the Holy Spirit to dig into our lives andbe honest and come clean.”
Tippit said he knows the observance of Lent and the Ash Wednesday service are unusual for a Baptist congregation, but he says he doesn’t get much guff about it.
“It isn’t for everybody or for every Baptist,” he said. “It’s welcomed by some and tolerated by others.”