Growing up in a Presbyterian church in Greenville, SC, I did not know there was a season before Easter. Nothing noticeable changed in the sanctuary during Lent. We did not attend any special services during Holy Week. And I certainly did not get smudged with ashes. The reason: in an effort to emphasize that we are saved by grace alone, 16th century Protestant reformers sought to distance themselves from what Calvin referred to as superstitious religious rites.
Perhaps the most visible example is the practice of crossing oneself. Calvin saw it as appropriate at baptism, but the reformers immediately following Calvin connected this practice with other religious rites to be rejected (e.g. indulgences). Luther did not have a problem with crossing oneself and even recommended it as a ritual for morning prayers. Reformers conceded that crossing oneself was a practice of the ancient church but their fear of the practice confusing the people and being too Roman Catholic trumped the tradition. How old was it? I would guess the very first Christians were crossing themselves. The 2nd century theologian Tertullian referred to crossing oneself as an “ancient practice.” For the first Christians the practice was essential to their spiritual life and not only to be done when the Trinity was named but,
At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.
Tertullian’s position is supported by other ancient Christian theologians like Athanasius, Basil the Great, Cyril, and John of Chrysostom.
I was shocked when I first learned that the ministers and congregation at the church Tricia, my wife, was serving in Florida marked themselves with the sign of the cross. But when I read about the ancients and considered Jesus’ commandment “to take up our crosses,” I realized the practice very well might deepen my faith. I still rarely mark myself with the sign of the cross. I do not think it should be required, but I do think it is a practice worth experimenting with on your own.
At the least, on Ash Wednesday, when you are marked with the sign of the cross, know that you are living into one of the most ancient of traditions in the church.