I grew up in a largely Catholic area in Germany. Cologne Cathedral has served the area since the 4th century. So as the Reformation came around in the 16th century Protestants needed to be different. We have gone along with the carnival season from November 11th to Ash Wednesday because we like a good mardi gras celebration with parades and floats and a lot of partying. But then when Ash Wednesday comes around you can still tell Catholics from Protestants because overwhelmingly we will stay away from that fasting thing.
For me that changed somewhat when we moved to Utah. In a community where 93% of the population are Mormon the liturgical roots of our tradition helped me to retain and strengthen my identity. My UCC congregation worked regularly with the Episcopal Church across the street to keep ourselves rooted in the desert. And I got my Catholic fix out of our joint Ash Wednesday services. Now in Rosenberg, Texas, at St. John’s UCC we have our own Ash Wednesday service – no Episcopal priest to impose the Ashes but it will be my turn tomorrow. That to me is a double-edged sword since the most disturbing thing about Catholicism for me is the role of the priesthood. The guy imposing the ashes seems so removed from the sinners who receive it. That just feels so wrong since our tradition puts a big emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. So I am very excited that I get to juggle that tension tomorrow.
The good news is that the whole ash thing at its core uses a scriptural foundation that fits well into the Protestant spirit:
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19)
God is quoted saying that to Adam and Eve after the scene with the forbidden fruit. Basically they are reminded of their limitations. That applies to all of us who were born to a human mother: Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Priests, All Believers, oh yes, we are all sinners alike!