By Nora O. Lozano
As I prepared to write my column for this month, I checked my assigned publication date as well as the liturgical calendar. To my dismay, I discovered that the day for this publication is Ash Wednesday. “Oh no. Why?” I asked, “I do not want to write about this, but I cannot simply ignore it.”
I took a deep breath, and remembered the advice that I always give my students: If it is uncomfortable, keep exploring it. I also remembered a required reading for my Introduction to Theology class by Shirley Guthrie regarding the two rules for being a good theologian: Be honest and recognize your limitations. Following this advice, I will reflect on my struggles with Ash Wednesday.
I was born into a Mexican conservative Baptist church and home. Mexico is a country with a Roman Catholic majority where Baptists and other Protestants have existed with a minority/survival mentality. In their quest for self-identification and differentiation, this mentality has led to a way of life that has been historically shaped by an anti-Catholic feeling. In practical ways this means whatever they do (Catholics), we will not do. Thus, what are considered Catholic practices such as having a Christmas nativity scene or observing Ash Wednesday (Lent, too) are strongly rejected. This way of life is common to many Baptists around the world who live in Roman Catholic predominant countries as well as many Latino/a Baptists in the United States. As a result, these Baptists/Protestants have let go of some meaningful traditions that they have identified as Roman Catholic, instead of Christian.
Every person has a story. For many of these Baptists/Protestants, their stories are intertwined with a Catholic history, culture and way of life that has often been oppressive, as they or their Protestant churches have suffered persecution and death due to religious intolerance. In addition, they have experienced governments that constitutionally affirm a separation between church and state but in reality display oppressive religious favoritisms.
In a nutshell, these are some of the reasons why some Baptists/Protestants around the world tend to have these anti-Catholic sentiments and reactions. At a deeper theological level, for some there is also the fear/concern of sliding back to the idea of salvation by works. So, as the calendar marks Ash Wednesday and Lent — practices that have been associated with the Roman Catholic Church — these Baptists/Protestants refuse any participation.
As I write this, I acknowledge that my San Antonio Baptist church of 18 years, under new pastoral leadership, has been observing Ash Wednesday lately. I know, too, that for Christians who celebrate this observance it is a meaningful time to reflect on the frailty of human nature (Gen. 3:19) as well as on the need to mourn, repent (Job 42:3-6; Dan. 9:3, Mark 1:15) and humbly practice spiritual disciplines that will direct them back to God (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21).
While Ash Wednesday points to these biblical notions that ideally should be practiced daily, it is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible, neither commanded. Thus, in my opinion it belongs to what is considered a discretionary practice. So, given the diversity of Baptists around the world, how are we supposed to approach this optional religious observance? More importantly, how are we supposed to approach each other in light of our differences?
As part of the universal Church that is in pilgrimage on this earth, we are called to live in unity. Unity is not something optional, but an essential requirement that Jesus gave us in his priestly prayer:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me … I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one ( John 17:20-23).
Throughout Christian history, we have struggled with countless episodes of division. Based on these verses, these fractures have affected our ability to be effective witnesses of Christ.
So, as we come to celebrate some religious observances that may be divisive for Baptists around the world, let us remember that we are called to be the body of Christ that lives in harmonious unity, not uniformity.
Concretely, what does this mean? We need to be respectful of each other’s practices. We should not use them as a way to measure someone’s spirituality, orthodoxy or commitment to God. On the contrary, we should approach them as an opportunity to foster communication that may lead to further unity.
So, the next time that you find a Baptist who does not observe Ash Wednesday or Lent, instead of judging him/her as less spiritual than you …
And the next time that you find a Baptist who observes Ash Wednesday and Lent, instead of judging him/her as too Roman Catholic or a diluted, wishy-washy Baptist …
Sit down with him/her and listen to his/her story. You may be surprised to find out that they are a committed and faithful Christian as you are, but with a different story — perhaps a painful, oppressive one.
As for me, I will not participate with my church this Ash Wednesday. You can stretch a person so much, and right now I cannot do more. Will I be back to participate with this body of believers? Of course I will! I will be there next Sunday, learning and worshiping together with these beloved sisters and brothers.
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity (love).